It should come as no particular surprise to anyone that Billy Golfus can still be a bit of a prick when the occasion suits him. As he tucks into a sushi platter at Fuji-Ya on Lake Street one recent Saturday night, Golfus acknowledges that this would be true of him under the best of circumstances.
"A long time ago," Golfus starts, "when I was working for KUOM, the news director there said, 'If you're not pissing somebody off, you're not doing your job.' And that's how I think." He pauses maybe half a beat. "It was probably the only good thing that guy ever said, but it was certainly correct."
Adding further fuel to the ire is that Golfus's current existence isn't even within hollering distance of "the best of circumstances." He's been mired in a death struggle with one of the state's biggest health care operations over a movie he'd like to make, and his own health could be better, to say the least. In the summer of 1984, the then-40-year-old alt-rock DJ was thrown 67 feet when a car rear-ended his motor scooter. When Golfus emerged from a coma a month later, he'd suffered brain damage (mostly evidenced by short-term memory loss) and some paralysis on his left side.
What he made from this horrific accident was the 1994 first-person documentary When Billy Broke His Head... and Other Tales of Wonder. A collaboration between Golfus and his former college teacher, David Simpson, it is an unflinching tragicomedy that bounces from Chicago to San Francisco to Denver and back to Minneapolis. The movie showcases the daily physical, emotional, and bureaucratic grind that is endured, and occasionally surmounted, by disability activists. It won Best Documentary at 27 film festivals, played on TV in 17 countries, collected an Emmy nomination, and captured the Freedom of Expression award at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival.
And yet, more than a decade later, Golfus hasn't completed another feature-length film. In fact, he finds himself nearly back at square one, stymied on a number of projects. It's enough to put anyone in a sour mood, let alone a natural-born provocateur who's already got a grudge match going on with his own body.
Perhaps the biggest blow occurred eight years ago when Golfus had a falling out with the Independent Television Service, the branch of PBS that bankrolled When Billy Broke His Head. "I was trying to get ITVS interested in Sex and the Single Gimp," Golfus says, moving from irritation to excitement just talking about the concept. "[It was] based on a story I wrote about this guy who wanted to meet chicks by learning swing dancing. It would be funny and entertaining and cool in that you discover people with disabilities have the same kinds of feelings everybody else has. And [ITVS] couldn't handle it. They shined me off for, like, four years.
"Congress founded this thing in 1990 allegedly to help make independent productions that serve unfunded and underfunded minorities. Well, the last time the census bureau counted them in 1997, there were 52.6 million disabled people in this country." Golfus bangs his good arm on the table for emphasis. "There are about 30 million black people, about 30 million Hispanic people, and about 10 million Asians—and there are disabled in all those populations. But the guy running this program, who is Chinese, pretty much divided it into thirds between blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. Out of more than 300 ITVS [sponsored] programs, they have done 8 programs, in 10 years, about people with disabilities."
The project currently occupying most of Golfus's time involves the Multiple Sclerosis Achievement Center (MSAC), a therapy and social center operated by Fairview Health Services in St. Paul. As part of a film he tentatively titled For Better or Worse, about the difficulty of disabled people maintaining long-term love relationships, Golfus began filming a woman who regularly attended the center. Then he became interested in MSAC itself—"the first holistic program set up for people with severe MS, a national model," he says. In 2004, he received oral and written authorization from MSAC authorities to tape there.
But as he continued conducting interviews with people at the center throughout that year, Golfus says he noticed "some of the beautiful things began to change." Golfus now attributes that greater interference to the influence of MSAC's corporate parent, Fairview. On Tuesday, January 4, 2005, Fairview's counsel wrote Golfus demanding that he turn over all his footage—approximately 50 hours of interviews—by the following Monday. Golfus, characteristically, refused. On January 13, Fairview took action, firing the woman who had been executive director at MSAC since its founding in 1985, as well as the center's chaplain, for allowing Golfus to film on the site. Fairview then sued Golfus for invasion of privacy and sought a temporary restraining order to prevent him from airing his onsite interviews. The medical provider also wrote to MSAC patients, informing them that they could withdraw the consent to film that they'd originally given Golfus.
Instead, five of these MS patients intervened in the suit on Golfus's behalf, claiming that, contrary to Fairview's charges, they knew of no MSAC patients who objected to Golfus's presence. In May 2005, Judge Charles Porter denied Fairview's motion for a restraining order and dismissed their invasion of privacy claim against Golfus—with prejudice. As part of his stinging rebuke, Porter wrote, "At the heart of this controversy is the question of patient power, not patient privacy, because in its effort to enforce the MSAC members' privacy rights, Fairview is actually ignoring the members' right to assert their own opinions on the matter."
Ironically, the net effect of Fairview's action was to provide more drama for Golfus's project. "I started out doing a story about people with severe disabilities being dumped by their mate," he says. "And then it also became about the beauty of the people in this program. It was never about Fairview until they fucked with me and tried to take my tapes away. Certainly," he says, with more than a little satisfaction, "some of that stuff has to be mentioned."
Golfus is currently living in a house in Minneapolis's Seward neighborhood, bought with inheritance money from his father, who died shortly after his memorable scenes with Golfus in Billy. Now 62, Golfus looks remarkably similar to the protagonist who co-produced, co-directed, narrated, and starred in Billy a dozen years ago. Maybe he's a tad grayer, with a few more pounds inside what viewers of Billy will recognize as his trademark overalls. But the paralysis doesn't seem to have intensified.
It remains to be seen whether Golfus can scratch up the interest and the resources to bring his latest project to fruition. One promising lead has been a request by Albert Maysles—a documentary director best known for capturing the Rolling Stones' Altamont nightmare in Gimme Shelter and Jackie O's kooky kin in Grey Gardens—to view some "selects" from Golfus's MSAC project.
"A select is a juicy scene that sticks in your head that you know you want to use; you just don't know where yet," Golfus explains. "What I'm trying to do now is get 45 minutes of selects out of 50 hours of footage. I just bought this [Apple] G-5 editing device because the G-4 I had wasn't working properly. I'm buying all this expensive stuff that I really can't afford. But I need to put this together for Maysles."
Although Golfus needed twice to be reminded of the number of the parking space he was paying for, he claims the rigors of the editing process have sharpened his mind of late. Golfus seems driven by his work, and almost everything he says circles back to the subject. The heart attack he suffered two years ago receives scant mention. What he wants to discuss at length is his failure to find not only a collaborator (his co-director on Billy continues to work with ITVS) but anyone to help him lug his equipment and conduct his interviews.
"It is rough being on your own. Sometimes it is just too fucking much," he rants. But after beating the bushes for high school and college students, he still hasn't found anyone "who loves it enough not to be paid." And so Golfus says he has become "convinced I have to do this myself."
Golfus maintains a high reverence for the stubborn giants of the film world. Portraits of Billy Wilder and John Ford remain prominent in his office. And he speaks with authoritative depth and passion about a wide range of his cinematic heroes, including Kurosawa, Cassavetes, Scorsese, Altman, and Ozu.
Perhaps colored by his admiration for these figures, Golfus careers from bitterness to a wistful determination. "I can't understand how someone with a master's degree and all these awards has such a hard time making a living. But," he says, softening, "I guess there are ways in which I like being on my own. I honestly think I can make this work. Well, I don't know if I can. But what else have I got to bet on?"