Having recently broken the auction fee record for an artwork made by an American artist – $110.5 million – Jean-Michel Basquiat has cemented his status as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Before his untimely death in 1988 of a heroin overdose, Basquiat produced hundreds of paintings, drawings and mixed media works. Along with his good friend Keith Haring, Basquiat brought graffiti into galleries, and his bold aesthetic of confident lines, colourful palettes and politicised wordplay is still regarded as one of the most authentic reflections of the fertile and debauched artistic community of 1980s New York City.

Yet most stories about Basquiat’s life only begin once his fame is burgeoning and his paintings already line the Downtown galleries. Filmmaker Sara Driver has remedied this with her documentary, Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat. A friend of Basquiat’s, Driver’s film covers the years from 1978-81, when Basquiat arrived in New York as a homeless teen and honed his artistic talents while partying at the Mudd Club and staying on her friends’ couches. Ahead of the film’s premiere, we spoke about Basquiat’s magnetism, his enduring legacy, and the unwritten rules of 1980s NYC.

Ammar Kalia: What inspired you to make a film about Basquiat’s early years?
Sara Driver: When Hurricane Sandy hit New York in late October 2012, my friend Alexis Adler who lived with Jean-Michel from 1979-1980 remembered that she had a work of his which was below ground level in a part of town that had flooded. When she went to check on it in the storage unit, she realised there were about 60 drawings, a notebook, and over 150 photographs that she had taken of him and had totally forgotten about. She then also remembered that she had a box at home of clothes he had painted on. When I saw what she had I was afraid she might have to sell it to preserve the murals that he had painted in her apartment and which were starting to buckle. So, I bought a camera and started shooting and realised that this wasn’t only a window into the early years of Jean-Michel but also a window into New York during this very specific time.

AK: Was the shooting process very organic then?
SD: It was a similar process to how we made films in the 1970s where we had a very small crew of around four people or sometimes I’d shoot by myself. It took four years in total to make and although our budget was very small I was so moved by how the art and film community came together to give me material that related to Jean-Michel. 

AK: What are your memories of NYC during that time?
SD: The city was very dangerous and as a result we could all live there very cheaply. It made you aware of the street and what was around you. I would see wonderful vignettes and strange human interactions which people don’t really have now since they’re all looking at their iPhones. I cut my hair really short so I’d look like a boy and could walk around at night and not be hassled. There were a lot of unwritten laws then, like you wouldn’t go into Little Italy and mess with people because of the mob, and you’d see a lot of old boxers on the street and if you put up your hand up really quick they’d get into a boxing stance. On Rivington Street there would also be a line three blocks long of people waiting for heroin and the police would be driving by and announcing what the label would be on the heroin that day! It was great because you sort of owned the city, you could make films without permits and there was an immense freedom in all of that.

“…he’d invite us to dinners with Warhol and things like that. I remember going to a party at his house on Crosby Street and he was running around the house picking up paintings that we were just stepping on! “

AK: What were your first impressions of Jean-Michel and how did you meet?
SD: We all used to see each other because we’d go to the same clubs. He was about three or four years younger than us but he’d have this glow from the inside, he was somebody who you were attracted to. He was a very charismatic young man and so interested in ideas. That’s something I wanted to get across in the film, how eclectic he was and how many different things he used to try; music, sculpture, painting, film.

AK: What impact did his SAMO graffiti have on you?
SD: You’d see it everywhere and he’d do it a lot around Little Italy and SoHo which was right where I was living. He would write musings and it would affect all our ways of thinking. He was very intentional about how he would even put words on a page, like how he would cross out a word so you could still read it. By eighteen, he was already a pretty advanced poet and he loved playing with words. The writing is so integral to his paintings and what makes him so special.

A scene in Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo Credit: © Alexis Adler. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

AK: Was it a conscious decision to not have Basquiat’s voice in the film?
SD: When I was talking to my editor, we spoke about making him a ghost and that the city then was a ghost too, since neither still exist. There’s also very little audio of him from that time, if any. Even in Downtown 81, the feature he starred in, they didn’t finish the post-production on it until 2000 and they had lost the audio so he’s even dubbed over on that too.

AK: Did you keep seeing Jean-Michel after 1981 as he got more famous?
SD: We’d still see him; he’d invite us to dinners with Warhol and things like that. I remember going to a party at his house on Crosby Street and he was running around the house picking up paintings that we were just stepping on! 

AK: Does the art community of Downtown NYC in the early ‘80s still exist as an entity?
SD: We’re actually doing an art exhibit right now in Manhattan called Zeitgeist which is about the art scene of the teenage Basquiat years. All the work that people gave me from the film is there being shown in it. 

Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat is in cinemas now.