John Lurie on ‘Painting With John,’ His Accidental HBO Show
John Lurie is, among other things, a pioneer of reality television.
A musician who founded the jazz group Lounge Lizards and was in the moonlight as an actor in films like Jim Jarmusch’s “Down By Law”, Lurie is a polymath. His first television series, “Fishing With John,” premiered on Bravo in 1991 and starred on the fishing shows that hit the local television landscape in the late 20th century – television that made fun of itself when it was weird. The show was born from Lurie who was shooting a fishing trip with Tom Waits in New Zealand. His trademark was an exaggerated narrative as opposed to everyday shots of white men fishing. In one episode, the narrator insisted that Lurie had a fight with Dennis Hopper in Thailand. In another, he claimed that Lurie and Willem Dafoe died in Maine. (They have not.)
Lurie’s new show “Painting With John” is more serious but no less strange. Lurie largely withdrew from music after contracting Lyme disease in early infancy (although he released a new album in 2017 with works from his Marvin Pontiac project). For the past ten years he has lived on an island in the Caribbean that he does not want to name. In “Painting With John” Lurie finds there, paints and tells stories and sometimes just speaks gently and meander. He describes Cola attacks and the supportive environment his parents raised him in. He makes fun of himself and Bob Ross. He crashes a drone. He’s rolling a tire down a hill. The effect is something calm and funny, as unique in the TV landscape as “Fishing With John” 30 years ago.
Here Lurie talks to Variety about his new show, which will debut on HBO January 22nd and will feature Adam McKay, executive producer on the creative team, and Mat Dwyer, co-executive producer.
It’s been almost 30 years since you did “Fishing With John”. Why did you want to do another TV show?
It happened by accident. I did that [painting] Tech, but I had to visit New York. And I wanted to forget the technology, so we filmed myself doing it. And I thought we’d just post it on Instagram or my website, those one and two minute things. It was kind of fun and adorable. People seem so depressed these days and I just thought it would be a nice thing to give people something. We had Erik Mockus come to film it and he turned out to be so good that it just kept evolving. Then I did this podcast with Mat Dwyer and he said, “Do you mind if I send it to Adam McKay?” And I said, “Sure.” Then [McKay] says, “I’ll let that see.” And he sent it to HBO. And then I accidentally had a show on HBO. Whenever you try to do something, it never works. But it just happened that way.
What did you want when you started thinking about it not as short videos but as a TV show?
I didn’t have that. The nice thing about me was that I really enjoyed working with Erik and we enjoyed working on it. He stayed for a month and we filmed things like the tire rolling down a hill. And there were some stories I wanted to tell. But there was no plan for what I think is the beauty of it because – are you watching the movie “Kajillionaire”?
I love how it’s like, “Uh, what? Impressive. Really? “I saw this after I finished” Painting With John, “but it’s similar. I think it’s so much better to approach things like this – use what you were given, use what unfolds for you instead of stuffing an idea into the camera
But now that you watch the episodes, how do you think they play out?
I have no idea. I’m really curious how it will be. People will say, “What the hell is that shit? Why am I looking at this? “When I paint, I get into a trance, into self-hypnosis, and then the best comes out. And I didn’t think I’d be comfortable painting in front of the camera. But Erik filmed the picture for a while and it then put music on and I said, “Holy shit, this really works.” I didn’t expect it to work that well, but there’s a real connection between my music and the painting, they seem to be from the same source .
How was it when someone filmed you painting?
I didn’t think I would be able to.
But it sounds like you surprised yourself and you could.
No, I just took shitty pictures. To be completely honest, the next pictures I drew after the six or seven on the show were better.
Because filming interrupted your normal painting style?
No, it’s because that creative part of your mind, your soul, is heading towards the show. I wake up and look at what I did last night and start working right away. And I go to bed and think about it. But now I’m working on the show. So the picture got a little secondary, you know?
How long have you been painting like this?
Since I was two. But you know, I have Lyme disease and around 2001 I couldn’t play music anymore. And for a long time my life was just going to the doctors and looking at Law & Order and painting for myself. And then someone saw [my paintings] and said, “Oh, you gotta have a show.” And I said, “Really? I dont know. The art world is so scary. “But then I had a show, but the pictures weren’t that good. And then there was that moment when it looked like, “Oh, that could be music.” And that was about 2004, 2005. And now I paint all day. I paint 10, 12 hours a day. And I’d rather do that than anything else.
This is your music on the show. Is it new or old music from your library?
I stole from my old library. It was all the stuff I own. We couldn’t use the Marvin Pontiac stuff because I sing there. We couldn’t make me sing. So we found some items from Lounge Lizards and took the voice of some items from Marvin Pontiac. Some of it comes from a movie I made. I got smart in the end while making a film score, and I would say that whatever I do that you don’t use in the movie comes back to me.
There are currently many products out there that are just meant to reassure people. The show feels like a more authentic version of those things.
There’s this TV commercial for something and all they have is rain, right? What is it “quiet” for or something? I look up and see this and go, “Oh, what’s that? I need this. “I think I did something like these people.
Do you feel like the timing is random? The world is a lot harder to be than when the show started.
I managed to cheer people up a bit just to show that you can have fun. Because the pandemic started when we started. But you know you’re looking for a movie and it’s all “zombie apocalypse, zombie apocalypse”. It’s like who needs the zombie apocalypse? We have a real one. I wanted to get away from this stuff. I wanted to do something fun and beautiful. I also wanted to put an end to the art world. More people will see my pictures than any living painter, and I didn’t have to deal with the art world at all.