Filmmaker Q&A: "Con Artist" Director, Michael Sládek

Brooklyn-based filmmaker Michael Sládek directed and produced, as well as shot and co-edited the film Con Artist. The riveting, hilarious portrait of ’80s art star Mark Kostabi, whose addiction to fame hit its extreme with his kitschy public access TV show Title This, where contestants vie for the chance to title his paintings. Con Artist had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this month and The Independent‘s Vicki Vasilopoulos caught up with the director to learn more about Kostabi and the story behind the film.

Tell me how you got involved with Mark Kostabi.

Essentially, I just fell into his studio. I literally was just looking for some work freelancing. And my neighbor was one of his painters — this Italian guy — and he said ‘come down to this place.’ I mean I’d heard a little about this guy because of his telling me that he didn’t actually paint his paintings and they painted them for him and the whole nine yards. And the game show…they put you on a camera right away, cause all of the cameras are worked by the painters and the painting assistants. It was hysterical — you get down there and the camera work is horrible. And you know, they don’t know any of the settings on the cameras, and I immediately walked in the front door and I was like the expert shooter… they would be in awe for a moment cause I could white balance the cameras.

And it was just such a funny scene to fall into, and eventually I started to get to know Kostabi a little better, which is hard to do. I don’t think anybody really knows him that well. But little by little, the scene and him and his story, and all of these wacky characters that were coming in and out just started to hit me that somebody needed to be shooting behind the scenes, and eventually began to realize that there was a bigger ramification to his story, to his career and to what he was going on there and what goes on in the art world and therefore our culture, and how contradictory all of it is and more than anything else, how funny all of it is and how much potential for humor — just across the board — starting with Kostabi himself. Just this dark humor that sometimes he gets how funny it is and sometimes he’s totally oblivious to it.

He immediately reminded me of “King of Comedy.” You know, the guy that kidnaps Jerry Lewis and holds him for ransom because he wants to be on his show, he wants to be a comedian but he’s not that good — he’s too old for it and he just reminded me of him. He’s this kind of pathetic sort of sadness that was hysterical at the same time because he was trying so hard and believed in himself so much. The only difference being that obviously Kostabi had been very big and very famous early in his career.

I wrote a line down from the film that I found amusing: “This is Applebee’s aspiring to be Olive Garden.”

That was Donald Kuspit. He teaches at SUNY Purchase. He’s a theorist. He’s written really interesting books about what he calls “The End of Art.” And he looks at guys like Kostabi and Koons and Damien Hirst as this sort of terminus point in art that needs to be counteracted, basically. Not to put words into his mouth, but he and guys like him think that Warhol had something to say whereas the rest of these guys just jumped on what Warhol was doing and kept going. And he advocates a return to one guy with a canvas being really well trained and painting things that are beautiful and, as one of the painters says, they’re beautiful and harmonious. Even if they’re ugly, they’re beautiful — as opposed to what Koons and Kostabi and Hirst do, which is to create pieces that are part of the name, they’re part of the brand, it’s part of the system. But then there’s an argument that says that it’s always been like that. There’s an argument that Rembrandt had a name at a certain point. Michaelangelo had a name at a certain point — they all had studios, they had assistants, they had a brand going.

A lot of what we wanted to do with this movie is just raise the question of a) who’s to say what’s good or bad, and then b) how does success affect the art? And I think any artist deals with that — the notion that if money starts flowing, how does it change the art?

I think Kostabi’s story is a very good launching point to that. And as you saw in the film, when he was young, he was just starting out, he was painting [everything] himself and a lot of people would say he was actually a pretty talented guy… it’s curious to see what would have happened to him if just kept painting, if he kept doing it himself. But he hit on something that gave him such a huge amount of success. It’s like a great actor who does these great films but doesn’t make a lot of money, then one day does this giant Hollywood monster that maybe is just horrible but makes him a lot of money. So the next thing you know, that’s all he does. We’ve seen that happen a million times with actors, directors, whatever…he gets typecast or keeps doing it for the money — gets addicted to the lifestyle. But that’s America [laughs]. We’re addicted to the ideas of money and celebrity. This is where we are right now. And a guy like Kostabi, like [art critic] Peter Frank says in the film — this cravenness, he’s just reflecting it back. Obviously what’s weird about it is that he is part of it. While he’s reflecting it, it’s reflecting back on him. It just becomes this snake that eats its own tail. He’s in on the joke but he is the joke.

The black hole of irony?

Yeah, the black hole of irony. It’s so great to hear other people throwing those one-liners back at us because having sat with the film for so long, we throw these one-liners back and forth all day long.

I’m fascinated with the idea of consumption and the semiotics of it — what is considered to be status? Everybody’s just into labels. It doesn’t matter if it’s the clothes on your back or the painting that hangs on your wall or the car you drive. It’s all part of the same thing, ultimately, right?

And people make entire careers based on their label, their branding. And somebody talks about in the film that all these guys got this notion of business art from Warhol. He said ‘I’m the brand – you guys come up with the ideas’ — the difference being that Warhol actually had very original concepts and very original ideas at a time when the art world was very different than what it is now — coming out of Jackson Pollock and all these abstract expressionists who were just kind of emoting. But even Pollock was a brand name as well.

There are so many contradictions in his personality it’s mind-boggling. He said, “Modern art is a con, and I’m the biggest con artist” — I love that line. Meanwhile, he said that what he does is social satire and he’s really just criticizing corporate culture. Do you believe that?

Do I believe it? What I believe and what my take is, it doesn’t matter. In the end, the film in many ways is about my own confusion about him. The film was never intended to come down on one side or another. We really tried to stick to this line where we want the audience to decide themselves who this guy is, what he represents and also what the art world is and what our culture represents.

We could easily have just decided to make a puff piece and be, like, he’s a genius, or we could have made a piece that was just slaughtering him. But it doesn’t interest me to do anything like that, because he’s a person and he’s got contradictions. But in terms of whether or not he believes that he’s criticizing corporate culture, etc, I think he does. I don’t think he’s a dumb guy by any means. He’s a very smart guy. He has an encyclopedic brain when it comes to art. He knows the art world really, really well — artists, dealers, art history, etc, and I think he has a general grasp of American culture.

I noticed that the new Kostabi World studio is supposed to be on that block with the Barbara Gladstone and Gagosian gallery. He made a point of getting back on the power block.

Actually, it’s funny you say that. We had a cut in the film that actually has that exact term: “We’re moving to the power block.” We took it out recently for the festival because it wasn’t fitting anywhere. He made it a point to go back there. He wants to be a part of the A-list again — and the A-list wants nothing to do with him. We tried to get Mary Boone, we tried to get Julian Schnabel, we tried to get [Tony] Shafrazi, we tried to get all these guys to sit with us and just talk about not just him, but the ’80s, the art world. But the second you drop that name, they’re like, ‘Bye bye, no thank you.’

Even Robert Longo, who is just a great guy — we said it’s OK if you hate him, come tell us why. You don’t even have to say you hate him, you can just say you hate what he represents, explain to us why you don’t think what he does is right, that’s fine, we want that. All of them assumed that no matter what it is, even though we explained that Mark Kostabi had no money and no control over the film, they just automatically assumed it’s just one of these gimmicks to get more attention. They don’t want to be part of anything that seems to endorse him — not that this film endorses him. But I think just the existence of my film, in their mind, endorses him — any more exposure endorses him. Which, in the long run, is just silly. Cause you know what? It’s art. It’s not like anybody’s lives are in danger. They take it so seriously.

I can understand when people just don’t want to be in front of a camera, but in this case it’s really a matter of — it’s high school. It’s the popular kids. Listen, there’s no denying that Mark was a huge asshole. He said horrible things to get attention in the press, to people in their faces just to get his name out there. He was a megalomaniacal jerk — and I think we show that in the film as much as we can. He said a lot of stuff that was really hurtful to a lot of people and probably deserved what he got. He’s apologized for these things that he’s said, but you know, a lot of people are never going to accept his apologies and I think that’s fine, whatever. But he still exists, he was part of the scene, there is still something to be said for the questions that his existence and work raise. So why not come on and say ‘the guy was a total jerk and he doesn’t deserve anything.’ That’s fine — that’s what we wanted [laughs].

I don’t think you needed it in a way — at least in the way you edited the film.

I don’t think there’s anything missing, it’s just the level of… the A-list would have been nice to get. Their absence is a story in and of itself. And we may work on it and see if we can get somebody in there. Mary Boone [the über-New York art gallery owner] was on our jury [at Tribeca].

That’s so weird.

Totally weird — what are the chances, right? [Laughs] Of all the years for Mary Boone or someone like that to be on the jury, specifically in our category too — totally fascinating. At the [Tribeca] awards, Rachel Ray got up and said that they wanted to give a special jury notice to Con Artist because there was such a huge amount of arguing amongst the jury members. And we actually pulled one of the Tribeca staffers aside and she said, ‘Actually your film wreaked havoc amongst the jury.’ [Laughs]. [Rachel Ray] seemed to really like the movie. That in itself is great because she’s so not an art person; she’s so meat and potatoes. It sounds like maybe some other jurors liked it as well, but maybe there was one that didn’t — maybe just one! [Laughs heartily]. And I could be totally wrong — maybe Mary Boone loved it.

This genre of docu-comedy is often hard to pull off. It sounds like you knew from the beginning that this was going to be a comedy.

Absolutely, yeah.

I just want to know how you set about getting that tone across — your first feature was a dark comedy, right?

I was definitely leaning toward comedy as we were shooting — kind of zeroing in on those things that were funny and being willing to shoot those things that seemed not to have any real weight behind them on the exterior but maybe more on the interior. The chocolate fountain scene is a perfect example. Here’s a silly, meaningless event that we basically start the film off with. I wanted to make a comedy, I didn’t want to make a serious film about art — especially not about Mark Kostabi. And he’s very playful — he loves to have the camera directed at him. And those moments when he turns to the camera and says ‘This is great b-roll,’ and you sit there and you go, ‘Well, not anymore, it’s not. But actually it’s even better a-roll because it just reveals so much about your character.

How we shot it was definitely playful and loose… [we] just kind of showed up to events. I used to be an actor so… [we used] the camera as almost an actor in the film… so it’s not just fly-on-the-wall or just watching and trying to stay out of the way — there’s more interaction between myself and Mark, kind of playing with him maybe. To a degree directing him, but it’s not in a way that’s making anything up but just kind of saying ‘let’s go this way.’ Part of it [comes from] knowing that I was making a film about an artist who doesn’t even make his own work and the level of fakery in that — I felt very fired up to ‘play.’

One of the big influences on this film was definitely Orson Welles’ F is for Fake, which I watched a number of times as we were making it — not to mention Fellini, as well as [Terry Zwigoff’s] Crumb. Crumb was a major influence, and [Barbara Kopple’s] Wild Man Blues. Stuff like that not only deals with a comic look at a subject but in terms of F is for Fake, just kind of breaking down that fourth wall and saying, ‘We’re making a movie.’ And that’s OK that we’re making a movie, and it’s OK that you hear the director talking to the subject sometimes, cause it’s a con. Cause making films is a con as well — we direct cameras at people, we take their footage, we cut it up, we juxtapose it, we put music to it. There is a con to filmmaking – it’s manipulated, and anybody that says it’s not is fooling themselves. I mean, it can be lightly manipulated. It’s not totally a con; it’s definitely a point of view for sure. Granted, some directors…some projects require a very light hand with that. As long as there’s an audience sitting there watching it and they feel something real from it, great. It’s entertainment, but it’s also thought-provoking.

Even though I laughed throughout the whole film, when it was over, I couldn’t help feeling that it was a tragicomedy. I almost felt sorry for the guy.

I think the idea is to juxtapose things so that you’re being entertained but you’re thinking at the same time. Beause we didn’t just want to make a movie that was gonna be all laughs and not any deeper issues. I think as a filmmaker we have to have empathy. I think if you don’t, then you’re just making a product. When it’s art, it’s strange to call it a product.

In a scene set in Rome, you used some great jazz music from Paolo Conte. Whose idea was that?

The music was always intended to be a part of it, setting the tone of mostly fun, sometimes just kind of shocking, some light stuff in there as well. We had a music supervisor named Dana Boulé — she used to be based [in New York] but she’s now based in Paris. The two of us, we worked together for years — she actually scored my first film, and some of her music is in this movie as well. We traded off. A lot of the bands are friends of mine — like The Willowz, These Are Powers, The Battlecats. A lot of them are Brooklyn bands, a lot of them are LA bands, and then we mixed in a few bigger acts. We wanted to use stuff that was reminiscent of the ’80s but also very much now, but mostly had to have the feel that we were going for, just had the right feel for the film.

Was there something in your own background that you think was the reason this material resonated for you?

I’ve always been interested in art and film, theatre, music. I think more so, I juggle with this notion of success versus just the work itself. And more than anything, just the whole notion of the outsider. I love outsider characters more than anything. I just really have an affection for the outsider more than the A-list celeb world. I mean, that’s all fine and dandy, but to me the real stories are people who come in second or come in third or don’t even place — but they try, they’re trying to do something. And my first film was very much about that. It’s about a guy who wants to be a great artist but just can’t find a way to do that — or even an art form [laughs], and he definitely comes in second or third.

And even when [Kostabi] was an insider he was kind of an outsider, cause the way he became an insider was by doing things that were very outside what was thought of as chic and smart. He did it through the mass media, not through galleries or museums or Sotheby’s. He did it through Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Oprah, the local news — put his stuff up in restaurants. None of those guys would have done that back then, and still don’t do it. That’s what attracts me the most to it — it’s an outsider’s story but it’s so close to the inside that it can reflect the inside. He’s inside but it’s not the room he wants to be in. There’s still a bunch more rooms between him and where he wants to be. Again, “King of Comedy” — it’s the same thing. There’s this guy who wants to be inside but can’t get inside. It’s painful but at the same time, nobody’s lives are really at risk. It’s about ambition.

I got the distinct sense that a lot of his public antics were kind of a performance — and he could have been a performance artist.

A lot of people say he is a performance artist — a lot of people do. I lean towards that. I don’t know if I buy it completely. I mean, he’s no Karen Finley, but there’s a performance artist aspect where you don’t just focus on the paintings or you don’t just focus on the game show or you don’t just focus on the ’80s antics, but you focus on the whole shebang. You can kind of say that maybe that’s performance art, but then again, a lot of people can say anything is performance art [laughs]. What does that mean? It’s very vague — but then again, so is post-modernism.

This whole thing is like a post-modern treatise.

I think so. There were points where we were playing with the idea of discussing post-modernism more, but we didn’t want to get too brainiac. We wanted to keep it entertaining and let people make those conclusions themselves. Instead of riffing on Duchamp, we can stick to just telling the story and have a little bit here and there.

Can I ask you how you financed this film?

Did you say financed? Ha! As if…Well…we’re still looking for finishing funds, but we shot for two years with nothing. We had equipment, we had access and I was stupidly willing to spend some of my own money [laughs] — I took the risk. We were not having an easy time finding money at all. And then Gill Holland, two years into it, of The Group Entertainment, stepped in with some funds and kept us going. He allowed me to get out of my small amount of debt that I was incurring and free myself up from having to get a day job quickly. He became our executive producer — a great guy. He makes a lot of movies and he’s our main investor at this point. We have one other who came in with a little bit of money — he’s one of the co-producers — and that was it. And right now, we’ve gotten through Tribeca and we’ll see what happens next.

Learn more about Mark Kostabi here.

Learn more about Michael Sládek and Con Artist here.

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