This film, following the pattern set in Bell Diamond made a few years earlier, is firmly rooted in its setting, in this case San Francisco, and reflects both time, place, and a very particular cultural milieu. My friends mostly, and the kinds of lives they lived there in San Francisco before the boom and bust altered the city for a while. Like Bell Diamond and Slow Moves, this film too was completely improvised, in this case around a basic idea and structure, around which were wrapped ideas rooted in and reflective of the lives of my friends, albeit considerably shifted from their real lives.

For example: my friend Barbara worked running computers for a liquor distributor, each evening loading up these behemouth machines which tracked sales, etc. Jon English, who’d done the tracks for me on two films by then, was indeed a composer and musician, and while that remained, he also slipped into the shoes of another acquaintence who worked at the Exploratorium, the hands-on science museum in San Francisco. Nathaniel Dorsky, wonderful filmmaker - some of whose scraps are in Rembrandt Laughing (the hand processed blue material, and sand imagery) - does indeed have a collection of sands from around the world. And so on: Ed Green did run a frame making business; Jerry Barrish does run a bail bond business; John Powers is an architect; Peter Machel did aspire to being a gangster; Kate Dezina had been a somewhat famous soap opera star - and she gets to be weepy. Most the people in the film are set in their own workplaces, doing something close or similar to what they did in real life. The story though was not theirs, but rather a kind of gentle amalgamation of an attitude, a way of living and approaching life which reflected their thinking and feelings.

And so, inserted into a basic structure, and an idea about story-telling, we improvised. The structure is cued with the title cards, with dates, perhaps too quickly on screen to be quite perceived: they run from a Sunday morning, the next day Monday, a bit later, then noonish on Tuesday; then early afternoon but a week later on Wednesday; then Thursday later in the afternoon; then Friday evening, but a month later; then for Saturday we move quickly, a shot for each character, through the whole day; Sunday morning a year later is the setting for the last scene. The “story” is told by what happens, and which the viewer is not given, in the spaces between.

To say we improvised - since many people have the quite incorrect idea that this means throwing people in front of a camera and yelling “swim” (and indeed some films I have seen seem to have such a mode of improvising) - means we talked about characters, ideas, and in some cases some things were written or nearly written. For example, in the opening scene a number of the jokes were conceived and written by myself; Jon English thought up, wrote and rehearsed his presentation as an Exploratorium guide; the sequence with the “gangsters” was written and prepared by Peter and John. On the other hand some sequences were pretty much spun up on the site, during shooting, with ideas shared, triggered by visual matters, recent little things that might have happened to one of the participants, a newspaper clipping. Thus the casual and relaxed manner of the film is derived out of its making, but is firmly grounded in the reality in which it was set - a peculiar and most specific cultural island in a particular time. When most people smoked weed; when the AIDS epidemic was reaching a crest, when many in this milieu casually skirted around the usual American guidelines of fixed jobs, of fitting into a corporate life-style. These things, not shown, are implicit in Rembrandt Laughing and the lives and characters which inhabit it. It could only be made by being a part of this world, of working inside it rather than sitting outside. Perhaps it can also only be understood in some senses by those for whom it presents an accurate mirror.

Need I say that Rembrandt Laughing is one of my favorites among my own work. It cost perhaps $10,000.

As a little aside, when editing this film, thanks to Jill Godmilow who let me use her flatbed table in NY, she popped in one day to see how things were going, and was shocked when she saw that I was editing the original reversal material (the Fuji 400 I’d bought a lot of), and that when I made a cut, the “out” went not to a trim bin, but into the garbage. Like most filmmakers, simply the handling of original was a virtual sacrilege to her; to edit with it and throw away the outs was heresy. I’d been working like that since 1965 when I shifted from negative to reversal film: cut original, no trim bins, stick with a decision. The same attitude applies to all other aspects - setting up, shooting, directing: have a clear idea, make a decision, and go with it.