Chronicles of Andy Warhol and his circle are in no short supply—the Edie Sedgwick biopic Factory Girl and Ric Burns’s Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film are only two of the more recent attempts—but neither of these big-screen accounts says much about Danny Williams. A Factory member, budding filmmaker, and Warhol’s lover, Williams mysteriously vanished while visiting his family in New England in 1966. In most books, he remains literally a footnote—if mentioned at all.
Though born after her uncle Danny’s disappearance, filmmaker Esther Robinson grew up in the shadow of his tragically foreshortened life, which long remained a family enigma. After archivists discovered a previously unknown but well-preserved cache of Williams’s 16mm films hidden within the Warhol collection, Robinson tracked down her uncle’s illustrious contemporaries in an attempt to uncover his story. But the documentary she created as a result, A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory, eschews the typically starstruck Warhol-doc format and transcends its ultimately unknowable subject, creating an emotionally complex portrait of the Factory moment. I spoke with Robinson not long after her film won the prestigious Teddy Award at its Berlin Film Festival world premiere, as she planned for her first New York screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.
What did you know about Danny’s life before you began work on your film? All I knew was I had this uncle and that he worked for Warhol in some capacity and he disappeared under circumstances that people referred to as, “he went to sea.” My grandmother had this shelf in her house that was all these books on the Velvet Underground and Warhol—every book, even the weirdest ones. If you opened them up, places would fall open. Anything about Danny had been clearly read. My grandmother had underlined things or put dates in the margins, and written notes like “That’s wrong!” It’s so painful when a history’s wrong, because you as an individual don’t have any recourse to change that.
Many of the Factory members you talk to have been mined for stories many times before, but your approach proves far more intimate than other documentaries. I wanted to create the first humanized Warhol documentary. The movie is shot very close so that when people are telling you something, you don’t have the comfortable distance of them being an expert. You really have to look at what their face is doing—like a landscape. Some of these people are the most photographed people in the cultural history of America. It was important to me that you had to reckon with who they are now.
By the end of the film, Danny’s mystery still isn’t solved, and in fact the stories we’re told don’t even add up. In order to justify their roles, a lot of the Factory people have to remember themselves as central and everyone else as peripheral. So you get these very singular sensibilities, all of which contradict one another. I was more interested in what people say happened—the narratives people tell themselves so they can go on living after something traumatic. That’s true of my family, and I would say that’s true of people in Warhol’s circle.
Even though Williams himself can’t speak, his films provide their own viewpoint. I think it’s really vital that people understand the joy at the Factory at that time. Because later it gets a lot darker and people get really hurt, and they have a hard time remembering being happy. But Danny’s work really is a testament to what people really were experiencing. Everyone was there to hopefully realize some potential in themselves. I didn’t want to make this documentary about the greatest artist that ever lived who nobody ever heard about: This was a 26-year-old kid who made movies for six months. It’s a story of promise, not unsung genius.