A Walk into the Sea:
Danny Williams and The Warhol Factory
is director Esther Robinson‘s personal inquiry into the truth behind her Uncle Danny Williams’ mysterious 1966 disappearance. Virtually unknown today, Danny was Andy Warhol’s lover, and a promising young filmmaker.
In 1965, Danny Williams was living at a fast pace. He dropped out of Harvard against his family’s wishes and moved to Manhattan to begin a film career. There he edited two films for Albert and David Maysles. He became a fixture at the Warhol Factory, fell in love with Andy Warhol and moved in with Andy and his mother. He also made over 20 films and designed the groundbreaking Velvet Underground/ Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI) light show.
1966 proved a more difficult year for Danny. Right before the EPI national tour, Warhol ended their affair. Three months away from New York and a growing dependence on amphetamines increased Danny’s anxiety. After a Variety review called Danny the “mastermind” of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable show, Factory members accused him of trying to take credit for Warhol’s work and maneuvered for his ouster.
After the tour ended in July, Danny went home to his family in Massachusetts. He brought with him a wooden box filled with amphetamine-fueled journals, lighting diagrams, personal effects and letters. His only other bag was a shaving kit filled with drugs. After a family meal, he left in his mother’s car. He was never seen again.
Thirty-four years later, just after the turn of the millennium his niece, director Esther Robinson, took a job as Program Director at a foundation funded and housed by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts
One day that summer, her grandmother Nadia paid her a visit at work. On meeting the staff of the Warhol Foundation. Nadia casually mentioned that her son, Danny Williams, had lived with Warhol and his mother and then mysteriously disappeared. A stunned silence filled the room. Esther was urgently told: “You need to speak with Callie Angell right away.”
While archiving the Warhol collection at the Museum of Modern Art, Ms. Angell had stumbled upon a strange set of 20 experimental silent films. Shot on 16 mm black-and-white stock, they featured Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, The Velvet Underground and other well-known Warhol subjects. They were also dramatically different from Warhol’s films; highly stylized, clearly personal, and quite obviously conceived by someone other than Warhol. They were all marked “Danny Williams,” and, according to Ms. Angell, were “extraordinary.”
Believing these films might hold the key to the mystery surrounding her uncle’s abbreviated life, Esther asked MOMA to return them to her family. As she engaged the MOMA bureaucracy, she began researching her uncle’s life in New York City. Frustrated by the scarcity of references to Danny in books about the 60’s Warhol factory, Esther was intrigued when her grandmother gave her Danny’s box of papers and journals. They were filled with clues about art-making and Factory infighting.
Curious about how little was said about Danny both by family and Factory members she began to make a film about her uncle’s last year. In interviews with her family, she started to tease out the story behind his disappearance, his complex relationship to his family and their unspoken fears. When MoMA finally released the films, the footage was every bit as remarkable as promised: luminous, intimate, and revealing. A new question emerged: how was this young talent dropped from the historic record?
Esther then started tracking down and interviewing surviving Warhol Factory members. Surprisingly intimate, these interviews began to dismantle the mythmaking machine and allow a deeper examination of the human fragility on which the Warhol empire was built.
A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and The Warhol Factory is the story of her search to uncover the facts behind her uncle’s disappearance and tragically shortened life. It is the story of an extraordinary talent abandoned by two dysfunctional families; one upright and traditional, the other bohemian and legendary. It is a story of abandonment by history itself. And it is a journey into a sea of family, missing histories, and the failings of memory.