Chasing J.X. Williams: The Rumpus Interview With Noel Lawrence

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Phantom of The Cinema  (1968)

J.X. Williams directed 54 feature films, wrote 78 screenplays, and compiled an FBI file 6,000 pages long.

Noel Lawrence has poured his life into the maintenance and curation of the J.X. Williams Archive, a vast and unsettling collection of photos, documents, and ephemera that tell in fragments the story of Williams’ life. A retired director and a full-time grouch, Williams is today holed up somewhere in Switzerland. He’s a man some have crowned the most talented filmmaker you’ve never heard of, a man others have denounced as a smut dealer who passes pornography off as art, and a man still others claim doesn’t even exist. In any case, I plopped down on a magazine-strewn couch at Lawrence’s place in the Haight neighborhood of San Francisco shortly before he moved himself and the archive to Los Angeles. We talked for an hour, continued our conversation a few months later over orange juice and crosswords, and finished this thing up by email and phone.

The Rumpus: Have you ever seen J.X. Williams? Spoken to him?

Noel Lawrence: Yup, I’ve “experienced” J.X. all right. The first time was when he found out I was going to release “Psych-Burn” and a few other of his films on DVD. He called me late at night with death threats. He kept calling but after awhile, I don’t think he was calling because he was worried about someone releasing his films on DVD. I think he was just lonely and wanted someone to scream at. Our relationship has had its ups and downs over the years. He’s keeping a very low profile. He has always been very secretive but I don’t even have a phone number for him right now. He just sort of materializes out of the ether now and then. This is frustrating because I’m trying to get started on a documentary about him but I can’t get him for an interview. So, um, J.X if you’re reading this, please get in touch.

Rumpus: So who the hell is this guy, really?

Lawrence: J.X. Williams was a cult filmmaker of the 1960s and 70s with a very colorful past. I like to think of him as sort of an evil mirror image of Forrest Gump. Whereas Tom Hanks’ character made a postage-stamp tour across the lighter side of mid-century American history, J.X. crossed paths with every tragedy along its seamy underbelly. When I started researching his life, I always spotted him on the periphery of events like the JFK assassination, the Manson murders, HUAC, the Chicago mob, and a lot of other notorious stuff. He wasn’t responsible or even involved directly in most of those things but the guy kept showing up on the margins. I knew about his films already but I found his life even more fascinating. I’m not an investigative journalist, I don’t get into that kind of thing, but I took it upon myself to start researching who this guy was and maybe try to connect the dots, and gather up every shred of information and artifact of his life I could.

Rumpus: What sort of films did he make?

Lawrence: Williams’ filmography is all over the map. All his work, though, shares one common element: J.X. only worked in B-Pictures. In the 1940s, he wrote film noir scripts at RKO. In the 1950s, he shot stag films. In the 1960s, he did sexploitation. And when his career ended in 1979, he was cranking out slasher pics. But in all of that time, he never was able to break into the studio system and make the big Spielberg-type pictures. Like the historical events, you only found him on the margins of Hollywood. That’s why I call the documentary I’m making about him The Big Footnote. Of course, today we are beginning to realize that these so-called B-Movies have a great deal more critical importance than the critical establishment originally assumed. For example, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, a 40s no-budget noir from a Poverty Row studio is now part of the National Film Registry alongside Ben Hur and whatnot. Williams’ films have either been ignored or insulted for decades.

Rumpus: What do you mean?

A Blaze of Passion  (1967)Lawrence: I can’t remember if it was Siskel or Ebert but one of them said that Williams’ filmography made a good case for the incorporation of “negative stars” into their rating scale. Even though a lot of his work is flawed because of poor acting and miniscule budgets, the material has an edge to it that transcends the limitations of the genre material he directed. Perhaps my generation gets it a bit more than Williams’ contemporaries. A handful of my friends grew up having the living shit scared out of them at slumber parties where someone played one of those rare J.X. Williams bootleg horror videos. It was like Faces of Death. The films were singularly unpleasant to watch but the images stick like chewing gum to the sole of your unconscious forever.

Rumpus: Did he get mixed up in the mob? Did he make porn films?

Lawrence: Absolutely to both questions. It began almost as a chance encounter. After J.X. Williams was blacklisted, he took a job at Eagle-Lion studios under a false name. They hired him as a production assistant, which was the lowest rung on the film production totem pole. For one of the films, Canon City, his entire job was to keep an eye on one star (DeForrest Kelley, the guy who later appeared as Bones McCoy in Star Trek) and make sure he didn’t drink on the job. Apparently someone was slipping Kelley booze during his lunch breaks and Kelley was messing up his lines. Another interesting fact about Canon City is that Johnny Roselli had a producer credit on the film.

Rumpus: Wait, who’s Johnny Roselli?

Lawrence: Right. Well, to answer your original question, Roselli was not your typical film producer. He was a gangster who had just gotten out of jail when the production started. He was friends with the owner of Eagle-Lion, Brian Foy, who probably set him up with the producer gig as a front to keep the parole officer off his back. To keep up appearances, Roselli had to visit the set once in awhile. On the day of his first visit, a big shipment of Canadian Whiskey had just arrived in Los Angeles. This was after prohibition but the mob still smuggled alcohol into the country to avoid taxation. So Roselli decided to take a few bottles as a gift for the stars he would meet that day. Roselli might have been a gangster but he was very courteous.

Rumpus: What happened?

Lawrence: So here’s the scene. Roselli has never been on the set before so he is wandering around with a whiskey bottle in either hand. He’s asking random people if they know where he can find DeForrest Kelley. Meanwhile, J.X. logically fingers Roselli as the culprit who was supplying booze to Kelley. So this 17-year old kid yells at the big bad gangster to get the fuck off the set. Williams had no idea who Roselli was but the rest of the crew was horrified. Roselli then goes to Crane Wilbur, the director, and tells him “I want to have a talk with that kid… in that empty soundstage over there.” By this point, J.X. has realized that he really fucked up. At best, he’s going to get fired but, more likely, he’s going to end up as target practice for Roselli. Actually, Johnny took it pretty well.  He thought the whole incident was pretty damn funny. Roselli then checked with his buddy Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures and found out Williams was on the blacklist. “Not even I could get you a job at a studio,” he tells Williams. Instead, he gave him the address of some friends who were shooting an “art film” and said Williams could make better money with those guys. Of course that “art film” was a porn flick and J.X. started directing them at 19. The rest is history.

Rumpus: Let’s back pedal for a second. Who are you? Where do you fit into all this?

Lawrence: I’m a fellow who directs, curates, distributes, and writes about film. If you want to be involved in the movies, you do a little bit of everything to survive.

Rumpus: What were you doing before you got involved with the J.X. Williams archive?

Lawrence: This’n’that. I came to California in the mid-90s to do a PhD in Russian Literature at Stanford. Quit that. I tried to make my fortune on a dot.com IPO. Didn’t happen. I’ve spearheaded various film ventures and made a general nuisance of myself in the popular culture.

Rumpus: Did you found the archive?

Lawrence: Yeah, I guess you could say that. Basically, I wanted to establish an organization to promote and preserve the films of J.X. Williams. If I hadn’t intervened, these films were tagged for a one-way flight into the ashcan of history and that would have been a shame.

Rumpus: What’s your connection to J.X. Williams? How did you come across him?

Psych-Burn (1968)

"Psych-Burn" (1968)

Lawrence: As a film curator, I make it my business to find the weirdest, most obscure films in the universe. J.X. turned up during a Sunday evening browse of the 16mm films section on eBay. One of his films was going for a couple thousand bucks and it was only a short. So I asked the seller (he had some cheesy handle like Sell-U-Lloyd) what the deal was. It turns out there was this small group of film collectors who were obsessed with finding films by J.X. Williams. His work is almost impossible to find on video so the films are really valued among collectors. I finally managed to obtain one of his films on video (“Psych-Burn”) and was hooked immediately.

Rumpus: Why do you keep pursuing him? Why don’t you give up?

Lawrence: Sometimes I ask myself the same thing. This project is like digging yourself into a hole. Before you know it, five years have gone by and you’re still not any further than when you began. Do you just walk away at that point and forget about it? Of course not. You keep digging yourself into that hole until you reach China. You can’t keep score when you’re groping in the dark. All I know is that I’ve got to see this through. A few people have the chance to do a lot of great things in their lifetime. Some of us only get a chance to do one thing. I guess this is my thing.

Rumpus: Why does J.X. Williams matter?

Lawrence: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the famed German director, once said the reason he made so many movies – more than 40 films in only 13 years, he then died of a drug overdose in 1982 – was because the more he worked in and around film, the more his life almost became a movie. I’m fascinated with those larger-than-life figures that truly lived cinematically. They become the ultimate manifestation of the postmodern condition as their lives begin to imitate their art. In everything he said and did, J.X. lived a life that a lot of people have only dreamt of. But there are consequences to that dreaming and he paid dearly for it. That kind of life is not something for me, either, but it’s beautiful to watch. Sort of like a meteor flaming out…

Rumpus: An American story?

Lawrence: Completely. Though the historical impact of his life may be minor, it’s a perfect allegory of the American dream gone sour.

Rumpus: How so?

Lawrence: Unfortunately there are many things I cannot speak about at this time. Certain people have trusted me with information and I have been sworn to secrecy. If and when I can give the details, I believe Williams may turn out to be one of the last big skeletons left in Hollywood’s closet.

Rumpus: Where is he now?

Lawrence: Outside of Zurich, Switzerland, I think.

Rumpus: When was he last seen?

Lawrence: I saw him a few years ago when he visited Los Angeles for the first time in two decades. Most of the people that exiled him to Switzerland have passed on so he felt safe in returning for a brief vacation in the U.S. Stupidly, I didn’t bother to film his visit to L.A. but I later attempted to recreate the tour I got from him that day in a documentary featurette called “J.X. Williams’ L.A.” Coincidentally, I’m just about to premiere that at the Downtown Film Festival Los Angeles in a couple weeks.

Rumpus: Do you yourself think he’s actually in danger anymore, from the mob or anyone else he pissed off?

FBI Surveillance photo of J.X. Williams circa late 1970s

FBI Surveillance photo of J.X. Williams circa late 1970s

Lawrence: No. He’s like one of those Japanese soldiers still hiding in the bush a decade after the war ended. A lot of his behavior comes from habits acquired forty years ago.  When the FBI is sifting through your garbage every week or you need to buy a remote control to start your ignition because you’re worried about car bombs, that stuff shapes you. Like when I first met him, I never could understand why he always spoke with a hand over his mouth. I found out later from a mob expert that a lot of guys in “The Life” did that to keep from being spied upon. The FBI hired lip readers so they had to cover their mouths.

Rumpus: Where is the archive housed?

Lawrence: Actually, it’s a real mess. I have some films in my closet that constitute “the archive” but J.X. probably has a lot more stuff that he’s not sharing. Where is he stowing it? I wish I knew. It’s almost impossible to see most of his films. A lot of them are almost more rumor than anything. Fans reminisce about seeing one of his films the way other people write about UFO’s sightings.

Rumpus: Did you ever see one in a theater yourself?

Lawrence: I was too young to have had the pleasure of seeing any J.X. films at the local drive-in or grindhouse. However, my friend Josh Olson (screenwriter and regular contributor to Trailers from Hell has a great story about how he played hooky to see the matinee of You Axed For It! in Philly twenty-five years ago. Somehow the school found out where he was and his parents yanked him right out of his seat at the movie theatre! Kids today don’t know how easy they have it with the Internet. All this horror and smut is just a few mouse clicks away on The Pirate Bay. Back in those days you really had to go out of your way for a cheap thrill.

Rumpus: You recently moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles… Why?

Lawrence: My research on J.X. brought me down here. Of course, as a child of the cinema, I naturally gravitated down here. I live one block North of Hollywood Boulevard near Grauman’s Chinese. This was Ed Wood’s old neighborhood. It’s a completely bizarre, surreal place to live with the Academy Awards happening across the street and helicopters zooming over your apartment every day. I love it.

Rumpus: Some people say you made up J.X. Williams, that it’s all a hoax. How do you respond?

Lawrence: There are conspiracy theorists all over the Internet that claim that J.X. Williams doesn’t exist. Some even say I made him up. I only wish I was that clever! It’s a neat idea, but the logistics would be impossible. It would involve a multi-year effort by dozens of people not just to fabricate his films but a vast array of historical documents as well. And what about all of those cheap paperbacks by J.X. Williams? Did this supposed conspiracy also plant all of that stuff in used bookstores for the last thirty years? But, hell, if there’re people out there who claim the moon landing was a hoax, I guess they can say anything. I once told J.X. about this problem and he laughed. “I just wished the IRS thought I didn’t exist,” is what he told me. Actually there may be a grain of truth to his answer. I know a very well-connected journalist who surmised that the “J.X. hoax” was devised by the man himself to keep his enemies from coming after him. It’s a lot harder to find someone who a lot of people don’t even believe in.

Rumpus: So Williams also wrote books?

Lawrence: Yes, though his literary output is something of an enigma as well. According to Williams, he wrote a few cheap smut novels to pay the rent back in the early 1960s. He then went back to shooting stag films, but his books sold so well that publishers started releasing books under his name that he had nothing to do with. A lot of well-known writers wrote under the J.X. Williams pseudonym including another cult director by the name of Ed Wood. To further complicate matters, the name J.X. Williams is a pseudonym itself. That’s not the name that appears on his birth certificate.

Rumpus: What’s his real name?

Lawrence: Not even I know. J.X. gave me one clue, though: It ain’t Rumpelstiltskin.

Rumpus: Do you travel all over the world telling people about J.X. Williams?

Lawrence: I’ve been at film festivals, museums, and cinematheques in the U.S. and Europe to lecture and present the films of J.X. Williams. I’ll be back in Berlin and Paris this fall.

Rumpus: When you talk about Williams’ life, what’s the reception?

Lawrence: Pretty good. You go to a lot of different kinds of places. One night, I’ll be screening in an unheated squat. The next day I’ll be giving a presentation at a museum that puts me up in a 5-Star hotel.  It’s all over the map. The biggest problem with reception is getting it in the first place. The amount of screenings with single-digit audiences can be discouraging. What makes up for it is that those four or five people are as obsessed about J.X. as you are. At least you’re not alone.

Rumpus: How do I go about seeing a J.X. Williams film?

Lawrence: Aside from a couple scraps on some DVD compilations like the Experiments in Terror series, the only way you can see his work is through bootlegs and the handful of public screenings I make. I will be in Paris, Berlin, and the Lausanne Underground Film Festival in October.  Check our official website for regular updates on those screenings.  I also should make mention that The J.X. Williams Archive is collaborating with the psychedelic soundtrack band Spindrift on a couple projects. As a start, we lent them some clips from some rare J.X. Williams films to use as visuals on their upcoming tour. We cut out the dialogue sequences and just left in all of the psychedelic freak-out scenes. I haven’t seen it yet but I hear it’s amazing. Also they may be helping us with soundtrack work on some J.X.’s old movies. One of the major problems The Archive has had with re-releasing Williams’ filmography involves music clearances. As you might suspect, J.X. was pretty sketchy with signing contracts and licensing agreements with the rock groups that scored his films. Thirty years later, a lot of these now-legendary bands have demanded as much as $50K to use thirty seconds of their music in a Williams picture. J.X. was livid when I told him about this: “Those junkies want how much money?” Fortunately, a few members of Spindrift are big Williams fans and offered to re-score some of the films.  At first, I wasn’t sure if J.X. would be amenable to that. But I told him “Listen, I know this band in L.A. who wants to redo some of your music. They’re great. Quentin Tarantino even used some of their music in a film he produced.” Surprisingly, he went for it. “Quentin Tarantino?” gushed Williams. “That’s great. I just loved The Crying Game.” I don’t think he watches a lot of movies anymore.

Rumpus: What’s the story with Goldstone, Arizona?

The Virgin Sacrifice  (1970)

"The Virgin Sacrifice" (1970)

Lawrence: Goldstone is a ghost town in Arizona where J.X. shot The Virgin Sacrifice. It lies along a trail known as the Camino del Diablo which was one of the most dangerous routes for prospectors to travel in the frontier days. It’s extremely hot and there are very few sources of drinking water. Back in olden times, there were skeletons of dead animals and humans along every mile of the trail. Goldstone has a checkered history and there is a lot of strange dark folklore about the place. The town was named for a guy who fell down a mineshaft. So guess where J.X. chose to shoot The Virgin Sacrifice? Granted the production probably would have been a disaster anyway but the desert didn’t help. Most of the cast and crew were used to working on soundstages in Los Angeles and had no idea what they were getting into. If you ever saw the documentary Hearts of Darkness, you might get an idea of the craziness on the set. Basically, it was Apocalypse Now in the desert, mixed in with Hell’s Angels, harder drugs, and the mob.

Rumpus: Is there going to be a book about J.X. Williams’s life soon?

Lawrence: Yessir. The Archive is going to publish a first volume of relevant documents from Williams’ professional and personal life. It’s juicy. Strangely, as much as his story is an American one, I think the book will get published in France before you Yanks get to see it. Sometimes the Europeans seem to understand America better than the Americans do.


Jesse Nathan is an editor at McSweeney’s and the managing editor of the Best American Nonrequired Reading. His poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in jubilat, the American Poetry Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Nation. He was born in Berkeley, grew up in Kansas, and lives now in San Francisco. More from this author →