About The Film

Burroughs: The Movie

Burroughs: The Movie explores the life and times of controversial Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs, with an intimacy never before seen and never repeated. The film charts the development of Burroughs’ unique literary style and his wildly unconventional life, including his travels from the American Midwest to North Africa and several personal tragedies. Burroughs: The Movie is the first and only feature length documentary to be made with and about Burroughs.

The film was directed by the late Howard Brookner. It was begun in 1978 as Brookner's senior thesis at NYU film school and then expanded into a feature which was completed 5 years later in 1983.  Sound was recorded by Jim Jarmusch and the film was shot by Tom DiCillo, fellow NYU classmates and both very close friends of Brookner's.

Howard Brookner & William S. Burroughs (Photo by Paula Court)

Howard Brookner & William S. Burroughs (Photo by Paula Court)

William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs (February 5, 1914 - August 2, 1997) was an American author and visual artist, most well known for his literary works including Naked Lunch.

Born in 1914 Burroughs was the grandson of William Seward Burroughs I, founder of the Burroughs Corporation. Beginning in 1932 Burroughs was educated at Harvard University, studying English, and anthropology as a postgraduate. Later he attended medical school in Vienna. Having been turned down by the US Navy and Office of Strategic Services in 1942 Burroughs ‘dropped out’ and became addicted to heroin, before befriending mutual founders of the Beat Generation Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

In 1951 while living in Mexico City, Burroughs accidentally shot his wife Joan Vollmer during a reckless William Tell act. He was convicted of manslaughter. Burroughs later claimed that it was this incident that really provoked him to write, influencing much of his work throughout his career. His output includes the early novels Junky, Queer and Naked Lunch, as well as his Nova Trilogy and the later Red Night Trilogy.

Howard Brookner

Howard Brookner (April 30, 1954 – April 27, 1989) was an American film director who directed two documentaries and one fiction film in his lifetime. He died in 1989 after a battle with AIDS, fought while making his final film.

Brookner studied at Exeter prep school, earned his B.A. from Columbia University in political science, and his M.A. in art history and film at New York University, where for his senior thesis he began Burroughs: The Movie with his film school friends Tom DiCillo (camera) and Jim Jarmusch (sound.)

He produced and directed Burroughs: the Movie, the first documentary ever made about William S. Burroughs with his full collaboration (1983), Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars on theatre director Robert Wilson (1986), and directed, co-produced and co-wrote Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989) starring Madonna and Matt Dillon.

Find out more about Howard Brookner.

William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs


Janet Maslin - New York Times (October 8, 1983)

“Rarely is a documentary as well attuned to its subject as Howard Brookner's Burroughs, which captures as much about the life, work and sensibility of its subject as its 86 minute format allows. Part of the film's comprehensiveness is attributable to William S. Burroughs' cooperation, since the author was willing to visit old haunts, read from his works and even playfully act out a passage from Naked Lunch for the benefit of the camera. But the quality of discovery about Burroughs is very much the director's doing, and Mr. Brookner demonstrates an unusual degree of liveliness and curiosity in exploring his subject.”

Roger Ebert - Chicago Sun-Times (June 15, 1984)

“The most painful passages in the film deal with his son, Willie Jr., an alcoholic and speed freak – “the last of the beatniks” – who wrote a couple of books and then committed suicide during the filming. Father and son are awkward together; although they are both anti-establishment rebels, it gives them nothing in common.  

Burroughs is a documentary portrait of a man who was willing to try everything, and who has so far survived everything. The one thing you miss in the film is the sound of laughter.”

Jonathan Rosenbaum - Chicago Reader (1 February, 1990)

“Howard Brookner's 1985 documentary profile of the now legendary avant-gardist William S. Burroughs, assembled from some 80 hours of interview footage. Overall an interesting, serious job, and the more controversial aspects of Burroughs's past and personality—such as his misogyny and his slaying of his wife—are squarely confronted.”

Mary Allen - East Village Eye (November, 1983)

“The most promising American director at the festival is 29-year-old Howard Brookner, a canny Long Island boy whose work, Burroughs, does everything a documentary can do to be entertaining and truly enlightening. It’s all here: William Burroughs, scion of the adding machine company founder, drug addict, accidental wife killer, bisexual, performer, collagist, all-around loony-tune and writer, always a writer.

Brookner started the movie as a film-school project and overcame the initial discomfort and suspicion of Burroughs, 70, who ultimately, as is evident by the completed work, made a very generous contribution to this youngster’s chronicle.”

Chuck Twardy - Lawrence Journal World (Sept 12, 1984)

“Fans should be excited by the range of images producer/director Howard Brookner has assembled and by the chance to hear and see the author in action. For those who are not fans but are at least mildly curious about the literary figure, Burroughs proves engaging entertainment in its own right.

How many documentaries for instance, feature segments in which the subject acts out his own writing? Burroughs, who spends a good portion of the film reminiscing with friends, dons the soiled robe of his character, Dr. Benway, for a grimy surgical escapade mid-way through the movie.”

David Denby - New York (February 27, 1984)

“In Howard Brookner’s documentary portrait, the novelist William S. Burroughs appears as an ironically formal figure. The 70-year-old author of (among other books) Naked Lunch and Nova Express, rhapsodist of violent gay sex, chronicler of the hallucinated highs and paranoid, consciousness-shattering lows of heroin, invariably wears a white shirt, a tie, a well-tailored suit, and a smallish hat. Expressionless except for the mean twitch that plays on his thin, tightly pressed lips, Burroughs could pass as a Bible salesman from a small midwestern city, or perhaps as a gloomy minor functionary hanging around the basement of a Baptist church.”

Jim Jarmusch, Sara Driver & Howard Brookner (Photo by Paula Court)

Jim Jarmusch, Sara Driver & Howard Brookner (Photo by Paula Court)

Cast & Crew

William S. Burroughs
William S. Burroughs Jr
Allen Ginsberg
Patti Smith
Brion Gysin
John Giorno
James Grauerholz
Francis Bacon
Lauren Hutton
Terry Southern
Jackie Curtis
Mortimer Burroughs

Howard Brookner

Howard Brookner & Alan Yentob

 Tom DiCillo, James Lebovitz, Mike Southon, Richard L. Camp & Antony Balch

Scott Vickrey & Ben Morris

Amit Bose & Dean Humphreys

Jim Jarmusch

Aaron Brookner & Paula Vaccaro

Tom DiCillo