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A Murder That Mimicked Greek Tragedy

Film by Werner Herzog and Herb Golder screens tonight


Willem Dafoe, Michael Shannon, Herbert Golder, and Werner Herzog (from left) on location in San Diego. Photo courtesy of Herbert Golder

On June 10, 1979, Mark Yavorsky, an award-winning actor from the University of San Diego, killed his mother using an antique saber. He reenacted, literally, a scene from the Greek tragedy Orestes, a play in which he had been cast as the lead.

Herbert Golder (UNI’75), a College of Arts & Sciences professor of classical studies and editor-in-chief of Arion, a Journal of Humanities and Classics, was intrigued by this literary crossover crime and set out to reinvent the story as a feature-length film.

More than 30 years after the murder, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is now on screen. Cowritten by Golder and Werner Herzog and directed by Herzog, with David Lynch as executive producer, it has played at the Venice Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Cannes Film Festival and in theaters in Los Angeles and New York. Next month it will be screened at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Tonight, Golder’s film makes its Boston premiere as part of the BU Cinematheque, a College of Communication program that screens and discusses the work of accomplished filmmakers. After this evening’s screening, Golder will answer questions.

BU Today: What drew you to the story, and how did the idea develop?
I attended a drama conference in the early 1990s, where a forensic psychologist discussed cases that had literary crossovers. He mentioned a young man who had acted out the Oresteia.

I requested his files, so I could research the case. He complied, but blacked out names due to confidentiality. I could tell that between the lines, there was a fascinating man who had done this — not because he committed matricide, but because he knew that he was reenacting the Oresteia.

Since it was pre-Internet, pre-Google, I hired a detective. We found him, Mark Yavorsky. He had been released from prison and was living in a rooming house in San Diego. I wrote him a letter, explaining who I was and my interest in the story, and pitched it to him as someone interested in the myth and poetry of his madness.

I think he had always been searching for some kind of redemption. So he invited me to meet him.

When I walked into his apartment, I was dumbfounded. His walls were covered with quotes, from the Bible to Oscar Wilde, and iconic images, from the Virgin Mary to hard-core porn. Smack dead in the center was a picture of Klaus Kinski from Aguirre: The Wrath of God, a famous image from the Herzog film. I thought, how strange. I didn’t know at that time that all my worlds would come together in this.

I visited him a number of times, recording our conversations. He was an archivist, and turned over everything, including cards, poems, and letters he wrote to his mother. He revealed things he had never disclosed to the psychiatrists and police, because if he had, it might have been questionable whether he would have been found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Chloe Sevigny - My Son, My Son, What Have Ye DoneChloe Sevigny. Photo by Lena Herzog

How did the screenplay evolve?
Yavorsky had moved from San Diego to Riverside, so I was going out to Riverside, spending the afternoons with him at a trailer park, collecting more information.

Around that time, Herzog and I were seeing a great deal of each other. We would meet at the end of the day and swap stories. His were about a film that was never going to get off the ground, because everybody had cold feet. Mine were about spending afternoons with a madman, talking about Greek myth.

So we decided that he should come out there with me one day to meet Yavorsky. After that meeting, Herzog said to me, “I think we should do the film together.”

In 1995, I met Herzog in Austria, where he has a house in the countryside. We sat down in the living room, and he said, “You’re not leaving until it’s finished, and you’re not staying longer than a week.” We actually wrote the screenplay in four and a half days.

Why did it take 15 years to produce?
We submitted the film to the German film subsidies, and were promised approximately $1 million if we could raise the rest of the budget. A few other European film funding agencies said they would come through with the money, but they backed out, because it was an American movie.

So I went to Hollywood, banging on doors. But people were afraid to take on a weird and dark film. One guy said, “I went into movies because of projects like this, but if I propose it to my boss, I’d lose my job tomorrow. It’s too risky.” Herzog described it as “the child that nobody wanted.”

Then by a twist of fate, David Lynch established a production company and was looking for a film to produce. I sent the script to his people, and within 48 hours it was green-lighted.

Did Lynch influence the style or direction?
Lynch never came to the set. He read the script, gave it his blessing, and lit the fire that enabled us to get financing. A lot of the things critics refer to as “Lynchian” are things Herzog and I wrote 15 years ago, before Lynch had anything to do with the project.

At the New York premiere, Herzog characterized it nicely, “Lynch’s films and my films are very different. They don’t really speak to each other. But when they do touch, they dance.”

Michael Shannon and Chloe Sevigny - My Son, My Son, What Have Ye DoneMichael Shannon and Chloe Sevigny. Photo by Lena Herzog

How does the film reflect the psychosis of Yavorsky’s character, Brad McCullum?
The story is about a very promising young man who becomes increasingly disaffected with, and oppressed by, what he perceives to be the artificiality of the world. So he finds a more intense and vibrant reality of myth and vision. Instead of achieving a kind of apotheosis, he falls tragically between the cracks of both.

There is a scene where Brad’s uncle comments on ostriches: “They’re dinosaurs in drag.” And they really are 100 million years old, direct descendants of dinosaurs.

Brad is looking for these ancient experiences where he finds something more profound. The ostriches represent a persistence of something very ancient into the present. He finds it again when he stands in awe before the mountains; his friends, the white water rafters, view nature as a theme park. But nature is not a theme park. It’s awesome. And he senses the awe.

Why have critics labeled the filmmaking style “guerilla”?
We kept the budget low by shooting with a high-definition camera instead of film. Nobody rode in limousines or stayed at fancy hotels. Everybody made about the same amount of money, so it was more like an ensemble project than what you would find in the Hollywood star system.

But we were very responsive to circumstances on a location, adapting and taking advantage of what we found. It was a combination of very disciplined filmmaking, guerilla only in the sense that we were working on a small budget with a small crew, open to opportunities that presented themselves.

What does the title mean?
We invented that based on what Yavorsky’s mother actually said to him while she was being slayed, “Mark, you’re killing your mother.”

The line is from the Bible and also happens to be in the Euripides play Herakles. After Herakles has murdered his wife and his children, his father says, “My son, my son, what have ye done?”

Did you get in touch with Yavorsky about the project?
My last contact with him was in 2001. He wrote me an incoherent letter. It sounded like he was becoming psychotic again. I didn’t respond, because I had no news. I felt I had let him down.

When the project started to happen, I tried to find him. I called the last phone number and wrote to the last address I had for him, but received no answer. I no longer had to hire a detective. I went online, and I was able to determine that he had died in 2003.

During filming, I never told the crew he was dead, because I wanted to keep them on edge. I would say, “If you see a very large guy who looks a little bit like Michael Shannon, but much scarier, let me know immediately.”

What advice would you offer students who want to get their work out in the world?
Have the courage to think outside the box. If you can’t find a partner, shoot it yourself. If you have a good story, the rest will fall into place.

This project languished for 15 years, and I finally made it. Never give up hope.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done will be screened tonight, Friday, January 29, at 7 p.m. in the College of Communication, Room B-05, 640 Commonwealth Ave., followed by a discussion with Herbert Golder. The screening is free and open to the public. The film will screen at the Museum of Fine Arts beginning February 6. More information is available here.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

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