Paul McCarthy Has Plenty of Shock Left in Him

By
Photography Moni Haworth

Published June 19, 2019

Paul McCarthy in character as Max on the set of his new video performance work based on The Night Porter, at his studio in East Los Angeles.

It is hard to think of a taboo that Paul McCarthy hasn’t broken—nay, shattered—in his pursuit of art. He’s put butt plugs on giant Christmas gnomes. He’s depicted President George W. Bush anally penetrating a squealing pig. He’s given us liquids—ranging from ketchup to chocolate syrup to cake batter—mixed with “feces” and spread liberally on half-nude Disney caricatures. The list of transgressions runs the full length of the 73-year-old, Los Angeles–based artist’s mesmerizing career, starting from his early performance work in the 1960s all the way to his deranged large-scale public sculptures and prurient film works that riff on cinematic classics. No other contemporary artist digs through our collective thin skins and deep into our subconscious—teeming with animal drives, preadolescent totems, and repressed desires—quite as acutely and unapologetically.

As it turns out, McCarthy is just getting started. Two recent feature films, CSSC: Coach Stage Stage Coach and DADDA: Donald And Daisy Duck Adventure, apply his signature obsession with the violent and scatological to the fractured landscape of American culture itself. Using a fusillade of references that range from the 1939 Hollywood western Stagecoach to Donald Trump, McCarthy mixes Freudian analysis with manifest destiny, murder with a demented American worldview.

From his studio in Lincoln Heights, on the east side of Los Angeles, McCarthy works with his team, including his son, Damon, a longtime collaborator, to produce his twisted fairy-tale creations across a range of media. On a recent visit, Interview captured the artist while at work—and in costume—on his reimagining of the 1974 psychosexual Nazi drama The Night Porter. This past April, his friend, the director and artist Harmony Korine—himself no stranger to controversy—spoke with McCarthy about performance and perception.

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HARMONY KORINE: I have so many questions about your new films. First of all, where did the idea come from?

PAUL McCARTHY: Quite a long time ago, I wanted to make a covered-wagon movie. I was really interested in the Donner Party, and I wanted to make a movie about it—but a fucked-up one. I worked on a script and all that stuff, and then it sort of splintered into these different kinds of covered-wagon movies. It always seemed too hard because you’d have to have all these wagons and horses and stuff. Then I sort of went, “Oh shit, Stagecoach!” I started working on a Stagecoach film around 2014.

KORINE: Your films always inhabit this weird netherworld. They’re movies, but they’re also like plays. Some of them have a video-game element, too. How do you put your initial concept down on the page?

McCARTHY: For these last films, there were a number of things going on. I made a lot of drawings—big eight-foot drawings. And then I made a ton of small drawings, which kind of acted like storyboards. At the same time, I was writing the script. So I navigated it from 2014 all the way to 2017, when I actually shot it. I broke the script into parts. It was also called “Three Stages of Violence.” It’s not like I think there are only three stages of violence, but I came up with three stages: One is bullying, which happens in the first part. You have these libertines bullying these two innocent people in the coach. Then those people in the coach get attacked by a group of men who kill them. That part’s about male violence. And then those men go to a saloon and it becomes about cross-violence.

KORINE: Isn’t the saloon section a totally separate film?

McCARTHY: Well, I wrote it as one long script. But we shot and got through the men attacking and killing everyone in the coach. And then, when I went to shoot the saloon part, that’s when Trump started to run for office. Up until that point, I was playing Ronald Raygun in the coach scene. One of the women was Nancy Raygun. There was also Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene, and Adam and Eve. That’s who’s in the coach. And those people are killed by “the white guys”—they’re all dressed in white. But when Trump began to run for office, I thought, “Wow, maybe I should switch the characters.” Then I became Donald Trump, or Donald Duck. Mary Magdalene became Melania, or Daisy Duck. Nancy Raygun stayed Nancy Reagan. Adam became Andy Warhol. Eve became the daughter Ivanka. And I shot it in a saloon. So the piece changed. It switched to the Trumps and then that became Donald And Daisy Duck Adventure. At the end of 65 days of shooting, I think we might have made enough footage for 20 features.

The set of McCarthy’s The Night Porter remake, nicknamed “The Maze.”

KORINE: What I’ve seen, then, is just the tip of the iceberg. Have you always been a fan of westerns?

McCARTHY: To a degree. When I was really young, I saw Shane [1953], and one of the films I’m working on now is a remake of that, where the women play the male parts and men play the female parts. I was probably 8 years old when I saw Shane, and it was kind of a thing for me. I think what I’m into with westerns is the landscapes and buildings. My saloon is almost an exact copy of the saloon that Fassbinder used in Whity [1971]. What I didn’t know is that that set was also used for a number of Clint Eastwood movies. I thought that Fassbinder had built it in Berlin or something. But it was actually in a film studio in Spain.

KORINE: So it’s a mash-up. The movie felt like a strange Clint Eastwood fever dream that had been blended up with political iconography. And your sets do look amazing. What was the process of building them?

McCARTHY: We had three sets: the Saloon, this place called the Way Station, and the Stagecoach. The original plan was to show a multi-screen projection out of the different sets. We’d started to edit multi-channels of the film, but then we went back and started editing with a single channel. Architecturally, I view these sets like a skull, and inside is where the dream happens. It took us about five months to figure out how to build them.

KORINE: Are the sets artworks?

McCARTHY: I do view these sets like sculptures. Right now, the saloon is still in the studio. It’s just as we left it. And then there’s a bedroom upstairs that was remade exactly to look like a bedroom in a Fassbinder film. We have this new set for a piece we’ve just been shooting, a remake of The Night Porter, called Night Vater. And now I’m working on another new piece: I want to remake the Oval Office. I’m working on all of these sets in one big, 40,000-square-foot room. It allows me to go back and continue working on them. In that way, I don’t know when they end. They sort of just keep going.

KORINE: And you keep changing your role in each of them?

McCARTHY: Just as Reagan became Trump, Night Vater became this image of a monster, like organized crime but as a fascist. In the film I’m shooting in June, I become Adolf Hitler. So there’s this transition from Reagan to Trump to a sort of mafioso to Hitler. Politics becomes some sort of organized crime.

KORINE: Ideally, would you want to show the films in their sets in the same big room?

McCARTHY: I’ve always been interested in the moving image becoming immersive. If it’s multi-channel, they should all be in the same room.

KORINE: Where do your actors come from and how do you get them to do all this stuff?

McCARTHY: For this last one, we just sent out a casting call in L.A. and I auditioned people. I read a whole section of the script to the group and said, “Look, this is what it is. I don’t know how it will exist in the world—whether it circulates in the world as conventional films do, or whether it stays in the art world. I don’t know how it will exist. But here’s what happens.” And then I went through everything—the shitting and sex and bull jumps and all that stuff. And then I said, “If you’re still interested, stay. If you’re not, no problem. Just go.” There were people who dropped out immediately. There were some who said they were interested but dropped out when we started rehearsing. I was lucky with the ones who stayed.

The set of the upstairs bedroom above the saloon in McCarthy’s video performance work DADDA: Donald And Daisy Duck Adventure.

KORINE: Watching it, it really does feel like a feature film, and in the beginning it plays almost like a conventional western. Then it starts to distort and slowly melt all expectation. A sensory, quasi-hallucinatory thing starts to take hold. But it looks so slick and more Hollywood than anything you’ve done before. Was that your intention?

McCARTHY: I think that comes from the editing. Damon pretty much edits them. When we finish shooting, he starts editing and I go on to the next one. Right now, he’s working on the edits of Night Vater. For that film, I worked with actors I’d worked with before in Germany. They really come out of this awareness of avant-garde filmmaking.

KORINE: I’ve always thought your films had a connection to Viennese Actionism [a performance art movement of the 1960s and ’70s], only you’re taking it into a more narrative terrain.

McCARTHY: I’ve always been interested in the subject of the pretend—like Warhol films or the films of Jack Smith, where you have this element of a narrative being made, but where the suspension of disbelief isn’t so strong, so you kind of realize that people are pretending to be those characters.

KORINE: How do you direct? I can’t tell how much is random.

McCARTHY: Even with the performances I did in the ’60s, I would write a script—or if not a script, a list of actions, a list of things that would happen. And there would be drawings that would go with that. My view was that the unexpected thing would become the most critical.

KORINE: So you put down stage directions.

McCARTHY: Yes. Someone comes to the door. Someone goes to the table. But it’s open-ended. The actors know that, and it can begin to really migrate into something.

KORINE: Have you ever had a moment when a performer has done something completely out of pocket and it changes the whole scenario?

McCARTHY: Yeah, I always want that to happen.

KORINE: So there’s a certain alchemy and magic involved. Did you ever see anything by The Living Theatre [a New York–based experimental dance company founded in 1947]? There’s a similar energy you share with them when it comes to performance.

McCARTHY: You know, the first films I did were very structural and repetitive in action. But once I began to introduce liquids into the situation, the pieces began to be more narrative. At that point, I began to take on a character. My voice would change or I would wear a kind of costume or a mask. In the pieces I did in the early ’70s, there would always be a character that would come from me covering my face. I would tape it up or pack hamburger on and tape it onto my face. At one point, I switched to these rubber masks. That went on for a long time. The mask could be anything from Alfred E. Neuman to the grandfather in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to Madonna to a monkey to a dog. Somewhere around 2000, I didn’t cover my head, but I would wear a prosthetic nose. But through all of that, there was a character.

KORINE: Was it the same character regardless of the mask?

McCARTHY: To some degree, yes. In the ’70s, it was this whole thing of being a male pretending to be a female. And then it switched to animals: monkeys, dogs, stuff like that. At times, I would get on all fours and act like a dog. Or I would bark. And then I became, like, these patriarchs: the sea captain, the president, a grandfather, whatever. It became very much about posing as some sort of arrogant, machismo character.

KORINE: Would you call using this kind of iconography satire?

McCARTHY: Appropriating these characters is a little like appropriating Stagecoach or The Night Porter or Snow White. They’re a hook that society knows. Like, you know who Walt Disney is, you know who Snow White is, and you know who Reagan is. But I don’t look like Reagan. I actually look like J.P. Morgan. My name’s just Ronald Reagan, right? My interest in these figures does get reflected in the piece, but something else is going on. For example, this last piece I worked on is about something other than The Night Porter. It’s about fascism and masochism or fascism and shame or fascism and sadomasochism in a male-female relationship. Those themes are also in The Night Porter, of course, but this peels it back ever further. It’s about digging deeper into something, into the bowels of the scum. Using The Night Porter or Stagecoach is sort of like creating a fake skeleton or a façade, like the front of a building. But once you go through the door, it’s about something else.

KORINE: You’re not doing impressions. What you do stems more from the subconscious, or something derived from the id, rather than being didactic or even political. Even though you’re using all of these political figures, the films don’t feel political to me.

For the character of Max, McCarthy wears a prosthetic nose and a black toupee.

McCARTHY: In the late ’60s, I read Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism. I think it burned a hole in my brain and that’s where a lot of the work still lives. It’s this sort of conflict between the reality principle and the pleasure principle.

KORINE: Do you feel like all of your films are really just part of the same film?

McCARTHY: Yeah, it’s like one big thing. They all take on engines that go somewhere.

KORINE: When you’re done with them, do you ever feel like you’ve figured something out? Or does it just lead to more questions?

McCARTHY: It always seems like it leads to the next one.

KORINE: You never feel satisfied when you finish making one?

McCARTHY: I always feel like I didn’t quite get it, that’s for sure. Like there’s something wrong in it. Like it’s not done yet. But I’m okay with that.

KORINE: I like when you slow everything down in certain sequences. It almost feels random, but it’s also this punctuation. Where does that come from?

McCARTHY: In the late ’60s, I started turning photographs upside down. So there’s this thing of abstracting normality. Like, you just flip it upside down and there you go.

KORINE: It becomes something else.

McCARTHY: It’s like I’m sitting in a classroom in high school, imagining that I’m walking on the ceiling and the ceiling is the floor. With the moving image, in film or video, slowing things down is similar to turning something upside down. Damon did it quite a bit in DADDA. One thing that was really interesting to me about the way Damon edited DADDA was that in slowing it down with the music, you almost feel like you’re in an altered state. The slowing down and reversing is like a drugged state. I’ve made films where I spin with the camera, and someone watching could get dizzy. I’ve made a room in which all four walls are projections and they spin. It interests me to be able to produce that feeling of a dream or a drunken state.

KORINE: It’s like shifting gears. All of a sudden, you downshift the film and then you take it back up again. In watching your films, I never feel comfort. You’re never letting the viewer relax.

McCARTHY: There have been people who have watched this new film and have said, “I think you should make it so it’s okay at times. It seems like you just ramp it up the whole time.” I don’t know. I didn’t feel the need for it to end pleasantly or to have low moments. It is what it is. It never lets up.

KORINE: That might be how it connects to video games. Some of these contemporary games last weeks and weeks. And it warps perception and time, and it messes with endorphins. And now that they’ve become so narrative—there is something very close to what you’re doing.

McCARTHY: I really like video games. And if you’re playing with other people, they’re also creating a narrative, so you have a narrative being created by multiple people.

KORINE: They’re becoming the most popular form of entertainment.

The shooting of McCarthy’s The Night Porter reimagining took 35 days over the course of seven weeks.

McCARTHY: Have you done any virtual reality?

KORINE: No. I’ve talked about it, but I don’t really understand it well enough. There’s also augmented reality but I feel like wearing those glasses is kind of dorky. If you could do it in a way where you don’t have to wear a headset, where you could just look into the air and it starts to happen—now we’re talking.

McCARTHY: Yeah, the goggle thing is kind of lame, but then you put it on and you’re in this world and you don’t have a body. You just have a perception. And then you can move around, change positions, and go through the image that you’re looking at. I made one a while back using two actors, and it was pretty interesting. It’s obviously the future of some sort.

KORINE: What do you think about all these people believing that life is a simulation? That it’s all programmed.

McCARTHY: That’s a hard one, right? You are born into this world and migrate through it with this idea of a physical reality. But stepping aside from that, it makes sense. Like, what is this thing that we’re in? Is it a projection? A conscious group projection of some sort? It’s funny because it kind of makes sense to me in a way that physical reality doesn’t.

KORINE: Why do you think there are so many Flat Earthers right now? It seems like it’s gaining in popularity.

McCARTHY: Oh, god. I don’t know.

KORINE: Do you believe in aliens?

McCARTHY: You know, I did see a strange light once.

KORINE: Yeah? What happened?

McCARTHY: We were on the 395, Karen [McCarthy’s wife] and I, late at night, and there was nobody on the road. All of a sudden, there was a light right behind me. A single light. It seemed to be going really fast. So I went to pull over to let it go by. And it was gone.

KORINE: It just disappeared?

McCARTHY: Karen and I were both like, “What the fuck was that?”

KORINE: Well, there you go. I think you answered that question.