Jonas Mekas: The Making of Andy Warhol’s ‘Empire’

Jonas Mekas

‘From 8 p.m. until dawn the camera was pointed at the Empire State Building, from the 41st floor of the Time-Life Building. The camera never moved once. My guess is that Empire will become The Birth of a Nation of the New Bag Cinema’ – Jonas Mekas 

Experimental filmmaker and co-founder of Film Culture magazine Jonas Mekas recalls the making of Andy Warhol’s avant-garde film Empire, 1964. He describes the Filmmakers Co-operative that met in his loft — a loose group of filmmakers, artists and friends of the arts — and the public reaction to Warhol’s radically pared-down film.

1 comment on “Jonas Mekas: The Making of Andy Warhol’s ‘Empire’

  1. Love this….Jonas Mekas (who has my middle name!), is wonderful to watch and listen to and oh so charming as he talks and reads. That he was a witness and participant in one of the great artistic ateliers of the 20th century makes his words all the more compelling.

Sign up or Login to comment and join the discussion.

[Jonas Mekas reading from his book Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971 (1972)]  ‘Last Saturday I was present at a historical occasion: the shooting of Andy Warhol’s epic Empire. From 8 P.M. until dawn the camera was pointed at the Empire State Building, from the 41st floor of the Time-Life building. The camera never moved once. My guess is that Empire will become the Birth of a Nation of the New Bag Cinema.’

I met Andy at a Filmmakers’ Cooperative, in my loft. So, my loft became like a meeting ground of the filmmakers and expanded to artists and friends from all of the arts, they were all connected. Filmmakers every evening used to bring their films, you know, to show what they have done, and it’s, uh – there were no chairs, they just sat on the floor. And that was Andy’s film school.

I did not recognise him until I met him outside at somebody’s birthday party later and they said, ‘You don’t know Andy? He has been sitting there on the floor in your loft for months, you don’t know him?’ I said ‘No, I don’t know…’

Cinema is contagious, of course he opened himself very completely to possibilities of cinema – through his friends and through what he saw. I went with Andy to one of La Monte Young’s concerts on Second Avenue. La Monte Young was, you know, he was doing pieces of music like stretching one note to six hours, to four hours. So, it was in the air, art in time was in the air. It took a sort of genius to bring it into cinema, to apply it to cinema.

In the Empire State Building there is a post office, usually that’s where I mailed Film Culture magazine from. So, one day I was walking with, you know, bags on my back full of Film Culture ready to mail. John Palmer, a young man who was helping me at the Filmmakers Cooperative, was carrying some other bags, and when we were walking, the Empire State Building was there in front of us like the star of the Three Kings, you know, to the birth of Jesus Christ, um, leading us. And we both said at about the same time: ‘Oh, this is like a perfect image for Andy Warhol’.

John Palmer was also sticking around in the factory, already helping there, so I said, ‘Well, why don’t you tell this to Andy? I think he should film it”. And he told to Andy, and Andy said ‘Yes, yes, this is perfect! Let’s do it!’, open as he always is to thoughts, to ideas. And uh, so then he said, ‘Tell Jonas, maybe he can get the camera and help me’.

Marie Menken, one of the filmmakers was one of the employees at Time magazine. So she arranged that we could get into the building, in the evening, after the offices closed. And that’s how we got into the building and stayed there in one of the offices overlooking the Empire State Building, set up the camera all ready and I framed it – it’s my framing. And then I told to Andy to check if it’s okay, and he looked, he said ‘Yes, it’s okay, go ahead…’

I was the only one who was working. They just sat and yapped: Gerard Malanga, my girlfriend Marie and John Palmer and, oh yeah, one of Andy’s friends, Henry Romney, who also I think had office in the same building. And that was it.

We premiered at the downtown City Hall Cinema, where Pace University is now, to practically full theatre – four or five hundred people. But at the very end there were like maybe a hundred-fifty or so left [Laughter]. But still, it’s quite a number of people stayed to the end, they came with sandwiches, food, thermoses full of coffee, and some walked out and came back.

It was very interesting how at the beginning, during the premiere, there were some noises, some shuffles, you know, some remarks, and then in some thirty minutes everybody becomes like quiet slowly and relax. And they give up, and they begin to submerge themselves into it, involuntarily almost, and the reaction becomes like…[gestures] something happens on the screen, in that building, and everybody goes “Woah!” (Laughter) And at some point, the lights went on. Oh! It was a huge reaction! But otherwise it became like a meditation: those who give up and just sit and watch.

The following are excerpts from a conversation with the Warhol crew, Henry X, John Palmer, Marie Desert and the poet Gerard Malanga:

John: Why is nothing happening? I don’t understand.

Henry: What would you like to happen?

John: I don’t know.

Henry: Andy?! Now is the time to pan!

John: Definitely not!

Andy: Henry, what is the meaning of action?

Henry: Action is the absence of inaction.

Andy: Let’s say things intelligent.

Gerard: Listen! We doing want to deceive the public, dear.

John: We are hitting a new milestone.

Andy: Henry, say Nietzsche.

Henry: Another aphorism?

John: B Movies are better than A Movies.

Andy: Jack Smith in every garage.

Marie: Someday we’re all going to live underground and this movie will be a smash.

[Intertitle] EMPIRE was an 8 ½ hour long film comprised of a single shot of the Empire State Building.

With thanks to…

Jonas Mekas

303 Gallery, New York



Stephen Shore

The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA,

A museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.

Reproduction, including downloading, and/or retransmission of any Andy Warhol Film, Video, or Audio is prohibited without securing authorization from The Andy Warhol Museum, a museum of Carnegie Institute.



Original composition




Andy Warhol, 1964

© 2017 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA,

A museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.


Andy Warhol on fire escape at the Factory

© Stephen Shore, 1965-1967

Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York


Andy Warhol at the Factory

© Stephen Shore, 1965

Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York


Scenes from The Life of Andy Warhol 1963-1990

Jonas Mekas, 1982


Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol, NYC

© Stephen Shore, 1965

Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York


Advert for Andy Warhol’s Sleep,

Village Voice, March 18, 1965


Jonas Mekas in front of Chelsea Hotel

Gideon Bachmann, 1965

Courtesy of Jonas Mekas


Advert for Andy Warhol’s Empire,

Village Voice, March 4, 1965

Recently Watched

Watch Next Video

American Art in the 1960s

American Art in the 1960s 59:52 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

'American Art in the 1960s' examines key figures in the realisation of the era’s major movements | Showing until 30th October, 2022

Isabel Rawsthorne Rediscovered: The Poetry in Things

Isabel Rawsthorne Rediscovered: The Poetry in Things 17:36 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

Curator Carol Jacobi shines a light on the career of artist Isabel Rawsthorne (1912 – 1992), “a missing link of 20th century art”.

The Romance of Bricks

The Romance of Bricks 1:05:29 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

An intimate 65-minute portrait of the artist Liz Finch by filmmaker Nichola Bruce.