From the doldrums of small-town living, I dove into the world of VHS collecting and early file sharing to escape the mundanity around me. From the gore-soaked horror of Lucio Fulci, to the trash comedy of John Waters, and the surreal philosophical films of Alejandero Jodorwsky – I consumed as much as possible.
But there was one director that always stood out, tapping into my adolescent angst with a dark, comedic wit – Director Jon Moritsugu.
My DVD of Jon’s film “Mod Fuck Explosion” (1994), often mistaken for porn in my collection, has been played to near ruin. Another of his, “Terminal USA” (1993) not faring much better. I love these films. They were integral to my youth and they are just as important to me now.
Jon (born February 15, 1965) has been making films since his early 20s, beginning in 1986 with his debut short, “Mommy Mommy Where’s My Brain.” His first feature length film, “My Degeneration” (1989) would also mark the debut of Amy Davis. A fellow creative who would go to play an integral role in shaping Jon’s visions as an actor, collaborator, and romantic partner.
Jon and Amy have even made sweet music together – First via Dixieland in the 1990s and later, during the 2010s, with Low on High. Bands which allowed Jon and Amy to explore their sonic sides; and just have a damn lot of fun together.
Amy would later be joined, in subsequent films of Jon’s, by many other recurring faces over the years, including Jon himself, along with Victor of Aquitaine – Who first appeared in “Hippy Porn” (1991) and also acted in “Fame Whore” (1997) & “Scumrock” (2002), amongst others.
Cementing his status as an auteur, Jon has also won numerous awards over the years, including winning Best Feature at the New York Underground Film Festival in 1994, 1997 & 2002. Along with being nominated for a Grammy for his directing work on the 2011 music video for TV ON THE RADIO’s “No Future Shock.”
With Jon’s new film “Numbskull Revolution” on the horizon (currently in post-production) it was the ideal time to reach out and discuss with him his past, present and future.
Explore his world, below…
Please describe some memories – such as art, music, friendships, adventures, study, romance, politics, work, religion, crime… anything really – from the stages of your life noted below:
I starting to really get into hard rock music when I was 11, but I had not crossed the threshold into actual record buying.
My parents had the usual old people’s collection of crappy LP’s – Perry Como, Carole King, and TWO goddamn copies of Oklahoma – and the only way for me to declare my autonomy from this and the same old tunes on FM radio was to… go to Sears… and purchase… on my own… my first chunk of music: Love Gun by KISS.
I handed the cashier my crumpled fiver, half expecting her to demand an ID or a note from my parents in order to proceed with what felt like an illicit, high-stakes operation. The transaction was totally mundane, and once outside the store, I ripped off the plastic wrap and slowly examined the record’s contents – a fold-together cardboard “love gun” (what the fuck – albums came with toy surprises? Rad!), an album jacket with a painting on it depicting the band members in an icy grotto/cave being fawned over and worshipped by beautiful half-naked brunette and raven-haired FEMALES (!!!), and the actual vinyl itself, which was so much more slick, sensual, and cool feeling in my hands than I ever could have imagined.
I was hooked.
That was the moment I was fully addicted.
At 17, punk and hardcore had already changed my life, and I was on a mission to destroy anything in my world that wasn’t this.
I walked over to my record shelf – I knew in my heart what I had to do – and grabbed LOVE GUN, my first ever LP, and took it out to the sunny tropical backyard. I removed the vinyl from the its pathetic naked lady sleeve and tied it with a string to a wooden saw horse, so that it dangled in the breeze like a flat black donut.
I got my slingshot out and gleefully shot at it until it was transformed into a shattered pile of sharp, shardy, black plastic pieces.
I tore up the record cover and cardboard love gun, burned everything, and declared myself free from the scourge of lame, loser, over-produced, plodding, “grown men in costumes” rock-n-roll.
I felt elated and free, but also a little sad – I had just killed a childhood friend.
After a late fall screening of My Degeneration in Buffalo, NY, I made the 12-hour drive back to Providence, RI in my spray-painted, flat black pickup truck. The bleak and cold Northeastern landscape provided no incentives to stop and I arrived at my familiar freeway exit at about midnight.
It was good to be home.
As I slowly drove through the quiet of Fox Point and it’s rows of two-story, squeezed together clapboard houses, I noticed someone up ahead standing on a street corner under lamplight. I slowed down… it was a skinny white dude, about my age, all naked except for a thin pink bathrobe fluttering open and closed, exposing his entire body to the wind, his face frozen in a wide-eyed grimace, his mouth slack-jawed and open.
In his hand he held a gleaming, 12-inch long butcher knife. My doors were locked and I didn’t stop.
Man, did I miss Buffalo.
I was at party in San Francisco (my new hometown), and I found myself sitting quietly in a back room with a few other folks.
I started to chat with the dude sitting next to me and it turned out we had some stuff in common – we liked the same bands and he had lived in Providence the same years as me.
“Yeah, that could be a really fucked up town,” I murmured.
Then he slowly launched into a story about the night some guys broke into his apartment while he was asleep – and he had jumped out of bed naked, screamed at them, then grabbed a butcher’s knife from the kitchen counter and chased them away, donning his girlfriend’s pink robe and finally standing on the street corner, knife still in hand, while waiting for the cops to arrive. What the fuck… I knew this guy!
I told him about driving by in my pickup, too afraid to stop.
Life totally made sense for that brief moment as we laughed and hugged.
After a total struggle shooting a feature in less than two weeks in the deserts of the Southwest, and an interminable post production through a couple of fire seasons in Santa Fe, Amy and I premiered our new feature, Pig Death Machine, at the Chicago Underground Film Festival.
Sitting on the tarmac waiting to fly home, nursing huge hangovers inspired by a couple bottles of syrupy red wine, a mountain of fancy marshmallows, and an extended sauna session, we got a last second call from Bryan Wendorf, the festival director. “Congratulations – you guys won the award! You’re the winners!
Jon and Amy… you’re the winners of the lifetime achievement award!”
We were stoked and elated, giddy and beaming.
And then a couple minutes later, as we were adjusting our seatbelts for takeoff, Amy looked at me with a completely crestfallen expression on her face.
“Honey, this sucks.”
What? We were WINNERS! We had just prevailed. I tried to explain this to her.
“No, Jon, this is the award they give to the losers… people they feel sorry for… people who are way over the hill and probably won’t make a movie again. We are no longer vital.”
Lifetime Achievement… she was right. We were HAS-BEENS. Semi-legendary has-beens.
The festival knew this, the world knew this, Amy knew this, and now, I was slowly getting to know this. I felt like the slowest person on the planet. Fuck.
We were very quiet the rest of the flight home, warm tears rolling down our cheeks as we held each other in our tiny economy seats, getting acclimated to the new reality that our lives were pretty much over.
I was teaching a college film production class in Santa Fe, and the kids were planning a huge party scene that they were gonna shoot over the weekend.
“Hey, Jon, you should be an extra,” extolled Chase, the budding director.
“Nah,” I demurred, “I’m too old to be in a teenage party scene.”
Chase looked at me and said, “You’re not old, you’re like our parents. You’ll totally fit in.”
I looked over the room and announced, “I AM OLD! Not like your parents, but like your grandparents. I could almost be your parents parent. I am 52 years old.”
An eerie hush fell over the room as all eyes looked away from me. It was absolutely palpable how sorry they felt for me, the suddenly really old dude in the classroom that nobody had noticed til now, a total Portrait of Dorian Grey moment.
And then in the next minute, I was promptly disinvited from the shoot in the most gracious and loving way by these tender young angels.
When and why did you first become interested in film, music, and everything creative?
… and any pivotal creative moments / influences?
As a kid, I loved movies, especially the steady diet of weird shit fed me by my mom: Fantastic Planet, Soylent Green, the first ten minutes of both Swept Away and Barbarella… but it wasn’t until the age of 8, at a family party, when my sorta-uncle Bruce pulled me aside and seriously asked me what I wanted to do with my life.
“I think I want to be a doctor or lawyer,” was my canned reply (at this early age, I didn’t even know what lawyers did – they just talked and got paid, right?)
He looked deeply into my eyes. “What about movies? Don’t you want to make movies? You have to do something cool.”
I was stunned – his words were like a blast of pure FREE WILL in my young face, a Nietzschean moment that informed me that it was my life, I could do whatever I wanted to, and it could be something COOL.
Can you tell us how you came to work with Amy Davis?
…and how your relationship has helped define/refine your creative vision?
She’s the new wave to my punk rock, the smear of color and frosting on my grey brutalist cake.
Our collaboration has been immensely rewarding, but also gnarly and difficult – think Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib – one of the hardest unions ever. In spite of my solipsism, lone wolf attitude, rampant ego, and close-mindedness, I have tried to temper this bullshit with listening, empathy, the realization that I really don’t know much at all, and that I have been coupled with a truly brilliant, dynamic, and sentient artist and filmmaker.
I can honestly say that our newest movie, Numbskull Revolution, is a true collabo, something that is better because of the two of us. If I had stuck to my solo vision with this flick, it would have disintegrated halfway through shooting or would be a steaming pile of cinematic feces by now.
Amy and I need each other… and the movies need us to be together.
The art for Jon & Amy’s early band, Dixieland’s 1994 7inch, ‘Babydoll’ b/w ‘Why Are You.’
How did you first meet Victor of Aquitaine?
…and did you decide early on that you were going to have him be a regular cast in your films?
I met him through a friend and he was immediately cast in Hippy Porn. And he subsequently starred in 5 flicks over a span of a couple decades.
How do you feel the film industry has evolved around independent / punk cinema?
Do you think you could have had the same career you have if you had started now?
The film industry has always been keenly aware of the independents/punks/outliers… and it ignores these visionary outsiders until there’s a chance to grab and repossess their energy and ideas… It’s what happened to the French New Wave, Blacksploitation, Dogma95, the Asian New Wave, etc.
I think there’s always gonna be a gorgeous and rich underbelly that is the raiding ground for the mainstream – A domain the studios can enter and grab talent, stories, and a fresh modus operandi to breath some life into their aging and crippled system.
I honestly feel that I could have the same career, even if I was just starting out now.
Everything has changed in filmmaking, but nothing has changed. It’s just stories told through the language of cinema. Same old shit as 100 years.
It’s so easy to transport ourselves back in time back to when moviemaking was supposedly easier, more pure and free, more real… and to wish for these better olden days. It’s a lie! Everything is the same.
Shut up and make your movie. Now!
Various behind the scenes photos from Jon’s film “Mod Fuck Explosion” (1994.)
Do you feel there is more or less opportunities today for creative individuals to challenge the norms of cinema?
I think the opportunities are ALWAYS there.
It really doesn’t take much to create a little space in the world to flex your creative muscles and disrupt some staid and tired shit. Creativity is timeless and unstoppable.
The world is totally unfair and fair all the time.
The scores in your film are integral to the vibe – How much consideration do you put into a score during the production of your films?
As a side note, Mod Fuck Explosion is one of my all time favourite OST’s as London’s Theme from Unrest is iconic, how did you get to work with the band?
Sound is crucial, maybe even more important than the image.
When I started out, I treated the bands on the soundtrack as stars of the movie, splaying their names all over the place and using the music to entice people to check out the movie.
The Mod Fuck Explosion soundtrack with Unrest was a dream come true… one of the easiest and smoothest projects ever. I paid the band $500 to record some original soundtrack tunes and then we pressed the record (which my sister designed after hours at her record company day job in NYC) on white vinyl – 2000 of em.
They sold out in the first week, we recouped our money, and the rest is history.
I totally love the way this LP looks and sounds – one of my all time favorite albums ever.
Keep your eyes peeled for it on collector walls of record shops for $100, and various bargain bins for 50 cents.
Do you actively tour with your own band?
…and what do you get out of Low on High and music that is different from filmmaking?
We are actively inactive as a band.
Low On High is only me and Amy – two people, one guitar and one bass – and we are loud and noisy with 20 lane wide, sugary monster truck hooks. We sound and look like a four piece who just snorted a pound of glitter up our nozzles, then did too much CrossFit.
Our sets are 15 minutes long… and we fucking rock.
Your band does not want to play after us. You will be a letdown.
Amy’s the leader of the band – I just follow her.
She comes from a tremendously musical family – her dad was jazz great Mel Davis, who was first seat trumpeter in his early 20’s with Benny Goodman, lead trumpet on Billie Holiday’s Lady In Satin, horn solo on The Hustle, and the dude who lost out being the Tonight Show bandleader to Doc Severinsen cuz he was an old school straight-edge who refused to score weed for Johnny.
Music can be so much fun – spontaneous, free, and fast – the opposite of the often glacial pace of moviemaking.
Various photos of Low on High.
How do you feel you have evolved as a filmmaker over the years?
You have often described your later years as ‘punk with heart’, can you elaborate?
Early years were shock, spectacle, and cinematic mayhem.
These have all been tempered and honed… and majorly dusted with heart, empathy, and lots and lots of humor. These were Amy’s influences.
It’s like I started out as a fast-food triple cheeseburger that has slowly accrued more and more stuff like organic arugula, fresh mayo, dry farmed tomatoes, danish pickles with licorice sauce… it’s still a big greasy mess, but now with tons of shit on it.
Now that’s a good burger!!!
What are you watching now?
What makes you excited for the future of film?
I am watching absolutely nothing right now… taking a movie break cuz nothing is holding my interest.
This will all change, but I am really enjoying the disconnect from the flicks. I’m full-on experiencing life all around me instead of the illusion of life (that’s been letterboxed and remastered for viewing pleasure).
What is the current status of your new film Numbskull Revolution, and what can fans expect of this project?
We’re in the middle of post production… we have a fine cut of the movie and are working on sound and special effects.
This one is gonna clock in at just under 2 hours and is a complete MOTHERFUCKER! And I mean that in the most positive, delightful, and complimentary way.
This is gonna be better than Mod Fuck Explosion, I shit you not. Aside from the awesome performances of the leads, Amy and James Duval (Frank the Bunny from Donnie Darko), the 4K footage is gorgeous, story is as tight as a hazelnut, and we totally make fun of the HIGH ART WORLD.
Odds and Ends
If you could sit down with one person, present or historical, and pick their brain for a few hours – Who would that be and what would you want to learn from them?
I’d love to chill and shoot the shit with Tokuemon, a distance relative of mine on my dad’s side of the family. He was a vagabond weirdo who lived in Japan a long time ago, who apparently ran away from his life of farming and fell in with some samurai and did some crazy stuff.
He would periodically return home to visit his family, like the prodigal son, keeping his mysterious life a secret from everyone.
I’d like to hear some of his stories.
The perfect meal – What are you eating and where are you dining?
It’s me and Amy, sitting in our favorite dining spot, the hatchback trunk of our car! We’re overlooking a gorgeous view of mountains and a distant ocean, toasting with some extra dry, minerally, low dosage champagne (No Dom or Taittinger) and sampling a smorgasbord of our favorite foods through the ages:
FRESH CROISSANTS (circa 2007, Seabreeze Farms, Vashon, WA, thee best! Hand churned butter! Ultra tiny and $5 each!), STEAK AU POIVRE (hole-in-the-wall Parisian Bistro, 1995), BURGER KING CHICKEN SANDWICHES (original version with extra mayo, Providence, RI franchise), MOCHA CAKE WITH BUTTERCREAM FROSTING (Mandy’s bakery in Albany, NY), CHEESEBURGERS (Bobcat Bite, Santa Fe, NM, circa 2008, original location, the best burger in America).
And some papaya enzyme tablets for digestion.
Various behind the scenes photos from Jon’s film “Scumrock” (2002.)
If you could pick any five bands to get together for one show, past or present, what would your ideal concert look like?
OPENING BAND: KISS (really early days, when their make-up wasn’t quite figured out yet and Gene Simmons shtick was acting like Frankenstein and jumping out into the audience and making people clap and dance)
BAND 2: Jesus and Mary Chain (Psychocandy era)
BAND 3: Devo (early days, before they got signed)
BAND 4: The Breeders
HEADLINER: LOW AND HIGH (what can I say, had to save the best for last!)
What are the top 3 items you own?
… and what is it about each of them that you so love?
It’s not like I don’t love “things” and I’m a monk existing on energy and air, but after moving around the country so much and slowly getting rid of shit over the years, I’ve come to the realization that this stuff is not that important.
Sure, I have a favorite camera, some fav LP’s, clothing, etc., but nothing truly resonates with life… it’s more like these objects are just chained to old brittle memories. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s all replaceable.
Of everything you have done, what would you most like to be remembered for?
Making a great meatloaf.
What is the best way for people to keep up with what you are working on?
Are there any projects you want to plug?
(i) AGFA 4K dvd box set of all 7 features and more!
(ii) My memoir, a sprawling and splattered 350 page tome with hundreds of color pix, will be published by Kaya Press.
(iii) Numbskull Revolution, the newest feature, will be completed.
The posters for Jon’s films “My Degeneration” (1990), “Hippy Porn” (1991), & “Terminal USA” (1993.)”
- Jon Moritsugu – Website
- Jon Moritsugu – YouTube
- Jon Moritsugu – twitter
- Jon Moritsugu – Instagram
- Jon Moritsugu – Facebook
- Jon Moritsugu – IMDB Entry
- Jon Moritsugu – Discogs Entry
- Jon Moritsugu & Amy Davis – MARFA Open Gallery Entry
- Jon Moritsugu & Amy Davis – 2012 Alibi Article
- Amy Davis – IMDB
- Amy Davis – Discogs Entry
- Numbskull Revolution (Film) – Instagram
- Numbskull Revolution (Film) – Facebook
All images supplied by Jon or sourced online.