A still from Losing Ferguson, a film by one of the Independent's 10 to Watch in 2012, Trisha Gum.
It’s another year, and time to announce 10 filmmakers we at The Independent think you should keep your eye on. It’s a varied group, to be sure, but each filmmaker has a few key things in common: talent, drive, and the desire to innovate.
The complete 10 Filmmakers to Watch in 2012 list is below, not in any particular order. Throughout the month of June The Independent will be posting additional exclusive (dare we say fun) content at our Facebook outpost and online. So be sure to check back with us!
Trisha Gum for Losing Ferguson
Trisha Gum’s film Losing Ferguson comes out of her time at the AFI Directing Workshop for Women, which helps women in the film industry make the leap into directing. Gum, 30, is probably best known for her work on the stop-motion Adult Swim show Robot Chicken, and live action was going to be a first for her.
The premise for her film is original: “It’s very much a breakup film,” Gum says, but with the twist that the breakup is between a woman and her imaginary friend. Gum’s real coup, though, was to make the execution of the conceit visually inventive. The art direction, set design, and costuming all create the kind of fantasy world where every single detail is in place. Rebecca, the woman losing her best unreal friend, dresses the way you imagine anybody obsessed with thrift-store retro preciousness would if given unlimited resources, and her home is an extension of that aesthetic. One wall is dominated by a pack of old-school phones, and in at least one shot, you can make out a shelf whose decorative objects are actually arranged by color. It all works with Ferguson’s fairy-tale atmosphere, which evokes real emotion even as it basks in the imaginary. Ferguson himself — with big, black oval eyes that actually blink — is endearing and pitiable. “I wanted him to look like a raccoon-rabbit,” Gum writes in an e-mail. “Blending all the elements that made those two animals cute, while also making him look like a child’s stuffed animal.”
With the camerawork, Gum and DP John Honoré take the combination of dreaminess and emotional intensity even a step further. The compositions are fresh and pleasing again and again, and the angles unexpected. “I want every single shot in the film to look like a photograph that was thought about,” Gum explains. She took inspiration from the wide-angle lenses and static shots of The King’s Speech and Jane Campion’s Sweetie. The approach amply fits the artsy aspect of the house, and works to make the emotional impact of Rebecca’s troubles more poignant for being framed so beautifully.
Losing Ferguson, and Gum, showcase what is possible when craft meets innovation.
Learn more about Trisha Gum at www.trishgum.com.
Check out our behind-the-scenes “extra” photos on Facebook!
Cole Wiley for After the Storm
Before becoming a filmmaker, Cole Wiley was a Harvard Law student. “Harvard Law was a whole other lifetime ago,” sighs Wiley, but not nostalgically. “The first semester of law school is tough. You’re learning a new language. It’s daunting, but also engaging and interesting. It taught me about the process of thinking and how to assess different situations.”
In his second year of law school, Wiley began shooting film. “I realized that I needed another outlet…I had so much to say.” In the fall of 2007, Wiley started at New York University for film school, going straight through from law school. “You have to have some life experience to be a filmmaker and law school – although I didn’t plan it that way – law school gave me that.”
Wiley has produced a series of short films, and they often focus on a small story to highlight a broader issue, notably Quietly, set in Brooklyn, about a teenager trying to save his mother from an abusive relationship. “I strive for the most realistic performances. That’s the most important thing for me – to make sure that audiences can relate to the characters, to bring out the humanity of the story before you bring out any politics.”
Wiley transformed the company that his father, Ralph Wiley, started in 1987, into his current production company, Heygood Images Productions, (HIP). Ralph Wiley was a sports journalist for Sports Illustrated and ESPN, and a frequent writer about sports as related to the African American life. The company began as a multimedia-consulting firm to develop a wide array of projects from underrepresented African Americans. After Ralph Wiley’s unexpected death in 2004 (the summer before Cole Wiley started law school), Cole Wiley restructured the company to focus on film. “I don’t feel pressure to be like him, but he had a huge influence on me, even in terms of film.”
Wiley is working on his first feature, After the Storm, currently in development. The story follows different members of a family as they each cope with the affects of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction. The script won three awards in 2011: the Spike Lee Production Fund Award, Best Screenplay at the 15th Annual Urbanworld Film Festival, and the Next 15 Minutes screenplay competition sponsored by Final Draft. “It’s exciting.” Wiley says of the project. “We still have battles to win before we shoot, but we’re father along.”
“I wanted to tell a small story about a family that people can identify with. It’s not a political film. It’s not a Katrina film. It’s about the present day – the political and social implications and the affect of the national tragedy,” Wiley says.
“Individual accolades are great, but the only thing that I care about is the movie,” Wiley says. “That’s how I know that it really means something to me. I still care about the work that I’m doing all day.”
Obsession. We get it. It’s what put Cole Wiley on our 10 to Watch list.
To learn more about Cole Wiley, visit www.heygoodimages.com.
Check out our Mad Lib with After the Storm producer Christian McGuigan here!
Zoé Salicrup Junco for GABI
Zoé Salicrup Junco’s short, GABI, is that rare film that leverages a director’s fascination for the place she grew up and turns it into trenchant social commentary. An official selection at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, the film centers around a female protagonist navigating the mores of urban and rural Puerto Rico. The tension is derived from the tug-of-war between a fully independent, unmarried woman living in San Juan and the small-town oppression of her origins. “I really wanted to concentrate on a female figure who is able to master what we usually see in male characters back home,” Salicrup says. At the same time, while the character needed to be successful professionally, “I still wanted her to have that kind of charisma,” Salicrup says. She made Gabi the owner of a welcoming neighborhood bar in San Juan.
Where other filmmakers might make Gabi a secret romantic who just needs to admit she really wants a husband, Salicrup, however, lets us see Gabi as a woman who already has much of what she wants, even if she isn’t married. An unapologetic sex scene, for instance, shows us that Gabi can take pleasure in her sexuality without guilt. “Gabi is in your face, that’s her, that’s the character I wrote. I didn’t want to shoot it a more discreet way because I didn’t want to cheat the character,” Salicrup says. During this scene, Gabi’s message machine pipes up and her sister leaves devastating news; Gabi’s lover asks her if she’s finished. “When you hear him say that, you automatically know that he’s not her boyfriend,” Salicrup says. “She treats and addresses her affairs [the way] we often think men do. They are an ‘in the moment’ kind of thing,” she wrote later by e-mail.
This is where GABI is bold: A female sex drive uncoupled from the relationship context is still news, especially for the women of Gabi’s family. Her sister excoriates her for her lack of interest in marriage and family, effectively dramatizing the double standard between expectations for women and men. It’s always refreshing to see films take on social issues that are still unresolved out in the “real world,” but Salicrup takes the art beyond that by using even cinematography to develop the difference between city and town. In the city, Gabi’s domain, Salicrup uses much more steady-cam, so that “everything is very flowing, a camera very in control,” as she put it. But when Gabi returns home and confronts her judgmental family, close-ups and more handheld camerawork express her emotional trauma in the face of rejection. (Not anything like the notorious excesses of “shaky cam,” however…noticing the switch here is the reward you get for paying attention.)
Salicrup also took care to give the scenes a more authentic feeling by telling the actors to ignore their theater instincts to enunciate properly and clearly: “I was like, ‘Throw those rules out the window,’” she says. It’s this approach, both adventurous and detailed, that makes Salicrup a promising filmmaker, and a member of our 10 to Watch list.
For more information on Zoé Salicrup Junco and GABI visit www.gabifilm.com.
Jason Cortland and Julia Halperin for Now, Forager
“Mushrooms are beautiful. They’re amazing.” Now, that is a sentence you don’t hear everyday. But, if you’re talking with filmmakers Jason Cortland and Julia Halperin about their latest film, then the beauty and power of fungi will come up quite often. It would have to since the film, Now, Forager, is about love and mushrooms.
Cortland and Halperin grew up on opposite coasts. Cortland grew up in Northern California and Oregon while Halperin was raised outside of Boston. They met at graduate school at the University of Texas, and began making films together in 1996. Between the two of them, they have produced between 15 and 20 shorts and experimental films. Now, Forager is their first long-form narrative, and their first project as co-directors directing actors.
The story of Now, Forager may seem simple. Husband and wife Lucien and Regina are foragers. They gather wild mushrooms and sell them to restaurants in New York. However, as their professional goals and dreams change, their personal relationship is put through tremendous trials and the couple is forced to examine their future together. This is a layered story about the strains of a relationship many years after boy-meets-girl. This is also a story about food. More specifically, all the work and effort that goes into the gathering and preparing of food well before it ends up at your dining table.
The original idea of making a food movie came to Cortland in 2005. The culinary arts were very important to Cortland’s family as he grew up in the Pacific Northwest and he had always been unhappy with other movies that revolved around food. “They are more about eating than about cooking,” he says. At the same time, both he and Halperin wanted to tell a story about a relationship nearing its end. As these two ideas were germinating, a third was introduced: The filmmakers had recently moved to New York and wanted to build their story around the City, but show New York in a different light. Cortland and Halperin wanted people to see that New York City does indeed have a natural, environmental setting. The entire movie was shot at locations within an hour of New York City, and that includes all the scenes of Lucien foraging for fungi in the woods. Throwing all these ingredients into the pot, Cortland wrote a script that uses mushrooms as metaphor, supporting the theme of a dying relationship. Cortland calls mushrooms, “the great decomposers of our world.”
Now, Forager would be the first project the pair co-directed that involved actors. An added level of difficulty was the fact that Cortland would be portraying the male lead, Lucien. Was it difficult working together on set? “We worked really well together,” Halperin says. They developed a good system right away. “If Jason was in the scene being shot, I wanted him to concentrate on acting and not worry about the shot,” Halperin says. During shots that didn’t involve Cortland as an actor, he would watch the monitor and Halperin would watch the performers. There were also several scenes that were Lucien alone in the woods foraging. For those scenes, Cortland was the entire cast and crew. He simply brought a camera with him into the woods while he foraged and set up his own shots.
Now, Forager has been extremely well received. It played to sold-out theaters at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and has been seen in many other film festivals across the globe. Reviews and word-of-mouth have also been strong. Cortland sums it up pretty well, “Not bad for a film with such a small budget, no stars, about mushrooms.”
To learn more about Now, Forager go to www.nowforager.com.
For a Facebook exclusive extra, and for a great reason to forage, check out and try Jason Cortland’s recipe for Black & Blue Risotto, made in the film.
Whitney Dow for When The Drum Is Beating
Some might say that New York filmmaker Whitney Dow was doomed from the start to become what he is today. Born and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dow’s father made educational films as a school curriculum developer for the social studies division of the Education Development Center (EDC.) The Dow family was good friends with acclaimed ethnographic filmmakers John Marshall and Tim Asch. The younger Dow grew up hearing stories about filming the Ju/’hoansi tribe in Namibia or the Yanomami people in the Amazon rainforest and viewing dailies from his father’s projects in lieu of a babysitter. “I can remember watching hours and hours of Eskimo footage in the basement of an office in Harvard Square while waiting for Dad to finish work for the day,” Dow says. He attempted to escape his destiny by going into advertising, but he quickly found himself a filmmaker because, according to him, “it is the only thing I’m actually good at.”
Dow’s latest project is the documentary When The Drum Is Beating, a film about the 20-piece Haitian band Septentrional and its incredible 60-plus year history creating music in a country where the only constant is chaos. This is Dow’s second film about Haiti, having learned about the band while making Unfinished Country with producing partners Jane Regan and Daniel Morel in 2005. Whitney felt that Septentrional was a great subject for a film, and an interesting way to look at a country. “It was a different way to look at a country like Haiti,” he says. “To use something that actually works, instead of something that doesn’t work or was broken. Is there something that could be learned from that?”
Dow began production on the film in 2006 and felt he had a completed film in 2009. But, after the horrifying and tragic earthquake rocked Haiti in January 2010, Dow realized his film would be irrelevant if he did not incorporate that event, and its aftermath, into his story. He went back to Haiti for a few weeks of production after the earthquake, but it certainly wasn’t as simple as cutting in some new footage at the end of the film. “My structure was completely trashed. I had to start over. Go back to the drawing board,” he says. For the director, “The resulting film became a better film, a much more interesting film and a more emotional film.”
When The Drum Is Beating gives the history of Haiti in parallel with the history of the band Septentrional. It tells a story about a group of people whose lives are defined only by the music they create, not the conditions in which the music is created. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and has gone on to be screened in 30-40 more festivals across the globe and featured as part of Independent Lens.
To learn more about When The Drum Is Beating go to www.whenthedrumisbeating.com. Also, watch for Whitney Dow’s next projects, a documentary called For Whites Only, and a fictional narrative film about a racial murder.
As an extra for The Independent’s readers, Dow suggested this scene of Septentrional with Michel Tassy, singing “Ti Fi Ya.”
Mike Day for The Guga Hunters of Ness
When Mike Day heard about annual expedition of the “guga hunters,” he didn’t quite believe it. “I thought it was a myth when I heard about it,” he said recently, though clearly he believes now that he’s made a film about it, The Guga Hunters of Ness. Each August, 10 men from Ness — a community on the Isle of Lewis in the far northern reaches of Scotland — boat to a tiny island and hunt young gannet for two weeks. (“Guga,” apparently, is the Gaelic word for the gannet, a kind of seabird.) Historically, Day (who’s 32) explained, “it was something they did because they had to, but now it’s become something very symbolic,” a remnant of a dying tradition. The meat is still important, Day said, and they even ship it to expats all over the world. Not everyone loves it, however. “One of the guys, he goes on [the hunt], he doesn’t even like to eat it,” Day says.
If it’s an unlikely story, it fits with Day, whose own biography took a surprising turn. Day, a Scot with the looks and easy smile of actor Chris O’Dowd (of Bridesmaids fame), had been a lawyer, and the career change to filmmaker was a big jump. Unsurprisingly, “it was a big change in paycheck, as well, dramatically,” he says.
The hunt promised to be dramatic, but it turned out that the effort to get the footage would make for its own great story. For one, the guga hunters had turned down many other filmmakers, Day said, so the hunt hadn’t been filmed in decades. “When I first met Dods, the leader, he said there was ‘absolutely no way’ I could film the hunt,” Day wrote in an e-mail. “So I spent a day with him on his farm filming his rabbit infestation, and didn’t ask about going on the hunt again. At the end of the day we went for a pint of Guinness and he invited me to film the guga hunt.”
Convincing Dods, as it turned out, was the easy part. Day’s boat to the island was so delayed by storms and damage that he and his team almost missed their window. Finally in sight of the island after a grueling 18-hour journey, their engine controls were damaged in one of many shakeups, and they would have been stuck in neutral if not for a MacGyver-like fix to the engine controls. (Day has a penchant for challenge. His current project has had him spending over a year working on a feature about whale hunters in the Faroe Islands, much farther out north of Scotland than the island of the gannet hunt.)
“There were times we were trying to remind ourselves that we were making a film, because we were just trying to survive out there,” Day remembered. “Whatever happened, I said, ‘At least we’re not in Antarctic, freezing to death, eating our dogs.’” One of his inspirations, actually, is Frank Hurley, the filmmaker who brought footage back from Sir Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to cross Antarctica. “Not only did they endure everything and survive, but after all they went through, over so many months, he still came home with a film,” Day pointed out.
In the end, it was all worth it: The historic document they brought back captures a part of a disappearing culture. As for the hunters, Day said, “I think they’re still surprised that we did it.”
For a personal take on a friendship and artistic collaboration, check out what Intrepid’s Nathaniel Robin Mann has to say about Mike Day here.
To learn more about Mike Day, visit www.intrepidcinema.com or www.facebook.com/intrepidcinema.
Anne Flournoy for The Louise Log
Sundance alumni, Anne Flournoy, is re-inventing herself from being a filmmaker for the big screen to web series producer. She makes our 10 filmmakers to Watch in 2012 list — and also our “most like Madonna award” (if we had one).
Maddy Kadish spoke to Anne about this re-invention with The Louise Log, now in its second season. One could argue that The Louise Log uses the power of the mini-screen to its advantage. Each season is made up of about 18 short segments of 1-5 minutes long. There is an accompanying behind-the-scenes blog from Anne, fans can post comments, and the web series uses quirky characters and narration to tell its story.
Maddy Kadish: I am fascinated by this new web series genre, particularly when you think about incorporating it with mobile and social media. Tell me about working in it.
Anne Flournoy: I’m taking advantage of the cheap technology. It didn’t start out as a choice, but a budget constraint. But it really works with my style — that distressed texture — almost like a documentary. It’s not a polished sitcom look at all.
I started figuring the series out around July of 2007. We shot all of season two in August, 2010 and I’ve been going through all the footage from that and adding in the voiceover.
It’s hard work, especially with no budget. The cast and crew are great. The biggest problem for a web series is separating yourself from the pack. A lot of people are trying to get into it. It’s not well funded or well known yet. That could change.
MK: Tell me about the web features that you use. Do you look at analytics? How do you leverage the blog and user comments?
AF: The analytics are great. They tell me where viewers are from and how long they stay on the site. Seventy to 80% of the viewers are from the U.S., but we have them from all over the world.
I like the public having input. I sometimes use the blog to ask fans to predict what will happen in the next episode. It’s hard not to be affected by the fans. But I take what I want from it. I mostly use it for encouragement and sometimes to help generate a buzz for an upcoming episode. The fan comments are as exciting to get as making the work itself. I work the most enthusiastic and beloved fans into the credits. It’s thrilling as a filmmaker to hear from your audience. With film festivals you send it off and hear nothing. I think the key to success online is in harnessing the energy and excitement of the fans.
MK: You’ve made several films with the name “Louise” in the title: your first film Louise Smells a Rat (a short), How to Be Louise, your second film (a feature), and now The Louise Log. What’s with the name “Louise”? How similar are all these characters?
AF: The name “Louise” makes me think of someone brainy and hot. How to be Louise is a feature with a more extreme version of Louise than the one in the short. Originally, the “Louise” in The Louise Log was supposed to be the Louise from the feature, now married with children. But it wasn’t working so I cut up the script into pieces and that became the web series.
MK: In Season one, Louise describes her afternoon as “anxious and tense, the way I like it.” What inspired you to create her?
AF: I was a blocked artist for a long time. Then I become a mother and felt anxiety and tension — I didn’t want to let go of that. Being a mother is a transformative experience, but there are days when you feel isolated and trapped. You’re stuck at home with small children. It doesn’t last forever. It’s fodder for the future. I wanted to create a sense of solidarity and comradery. My worst weaknesses and flaws, on steroids, are Louise.
Christine Cook (who plays Louise) is so connected and so natural. I met her at a creativity workshop. She was a high school teacher with no acting training.
MK: What’s next for you?
AF: I have to have an opened mind and begin thinking more like a person making Internet content, not just as independent filmmaker. But I don’t want to just throw stuff on the Internet. It has to have inherent value, but still be cheap to make. I’m always thinking I’m on the verge….
To learn more about Anne Flournoy and watch episodes of The Lousie Log, visit www.thelouiselog.com.
For an exclusive take on Anne vs. Louise, read that Q and A with Anne’s son Frank Green here.
Velcrow Ripper for Occupy Love
Velcrow Ripper, 48, has been making docs for years trying to get a handle on the consciousness of the moment. His newest, Occupy Love, which he’s now editing, is the last part of a trilogy that he started with the docs Scared Sacred and Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action. With all of these films, he’s focused on how big personal themes could resonate into politics and society. “What I’m really doing is looking for the zeitgeist of the time, from 2000–2012,” he said recently. He sees Occupy as part of bigger force that is tied into Arab Spring, in a movement he says is now identified as “Global Spring.”
“Everyone is starting to get it,” he says, but he doesn’t think “it” is just about Occupy: It’s about the “natural rising” being fostered, in part, by the Internet. And it’s not easy to define in older terms. “New age”? “I’m not interested in that in the slightest,” he says. “Communism”? “Communism has just displaced existing powers and replaced it with another power structure.” Even identifying this big movement with Occupy can be misleading, since it tends to focus on the specifics: “Don’t think of it as what happened at one camp with one idiot that showed up and wrecked everything,” he says. He’s not ready to define it as “spiritual,” either. Even after examining the idea in depth, he said, “I still wasn’t sold on the word ‘spiritual’ at all — it’s too divisive,” because people misunderstand it. “Often they conflate it with the word ‘religious’ or ‘new age,’ neither of which are the way I understand the true meaning of the word,” he wrote in an e-mail. This is part of why “love” is the theme of Occupy Love. “Of course — and this is my current challenge — people also bring a lot of baggage and misunderstanding to the word ‘love,’” he wrote in an e-mail. Even with all this confusion, he’s still passionate about the movement and the way it connects the individual to the political. “It’s a poetic essay that’s personal,” he says, of Occupy Love.
Ripper doesn’t want to stop at the rhetorical in the film. Instead, he focuses on giving concrete ways to step out of the current debacle of an economy. Videos on his site have included one on the work of Charles Eisenstein, whose book Sacred Economics talks about methods of reconnecting the community beyond money. “My exploration always tries to be complete in that way,” Ripper says. He doesn’t only want to indict the current system and leave viewers without any ideas on how to fix it. “This movement is very solution-oriented.”
Maybe most importantly, he’s realistic about the scope of the change and how long it will take for ideas to diffuse: “It took 20–30 years for even the majority of women to embrace the goals of the women’s movement,” he wrote. Maybe Occupy Love can get the ball rolling.
To learn more about Velcrow Ripper, and Occupy Love, visit www.velcrowripper.com.
For video extras, check out the spoken word clip, featuring Drew Dellinger, who will appear in Ripper’s film. And to hear directly from Ripper, about his global exploration of the Occupy Movement, check out this video.
Aaron Kopp for Liyana
“I was born to make this film.” That is award-winning independent filmmaker Aaron Kopp speaking. Kopp is based in Denver, but he actually grew up in the Kingdom of Swaziland in southern Africa. Kopp’s parents moved there and opened New Life Homes, a facility to help some of the many children left orphaned and abandoned due to the incredibly high rate of HIV/AIDS in that country. The children Kopp would meet there would inspire him to create his passion project.
Kopp has worked on films all over the world as a cameraman, producer and director. In between these paid gigs Kopp, his wife Amanda, and their producers, have been putting together his film Liyana. It is a unique combination of a documentary about the children of New Life Homes and an animated, fictional tale about the adventures of Liyana, a character born from the imaginations of the children themselves.
Kopp has known most of the kids in his film since they were babies. He has watched them grow and has seen them deal with things that no one, especially children, should have to endure. “These kids are from the darker sides of life,” Kopp says.
It was while making an earlier short about New Life Homes that Kopp got the initial idea for Liyana. “The short (Likhaya) was more of a promo-piece for [New Life Homes],” Kopp says. [As an "extra" added to this story in September, we've got the short for you here.] But, while spending time with the children, filming them, talking with them, Kopp was struck by the unique and special ways the kids related to their pasts. He saw that the children would use their imaginations to explain or comprehend what had happened to them and why they were at New Life Homes. A story idea began to form.
His idea took some time to come together, but Kopp knew what he didn’t want. “I didn’t want another pathos-heavy documentary about orphans in Africa,” he says. “I wanted to figure out the right way to tell their story.” What he eventually came up with was something different. The film would use a fictional character as a way for the kids to project their own experiences in a way that was safe and comfortable. The children helped create the character and the character’s name, Liyana, that translates into “it’s raining.” A perfect name because, as Kopp says, “in that part of the world, rain is something that allows you to live.”
As preparation for the project, Kopp and his filmmaking partners did some intense research on art therapy as well as narrative therapy and they worked with a child psychologist to help develop some of the concepts in the film. How did the kids react to the idea? “The kids were excited. They were super-keen on it,” he says. In addition, the filmmakers knew they would need someone special to lead the kids in the classroom. Someone who was creative and who knew what it was like to be an artist. The only name on Kopp’s list was renowned storyteller and teacher Gcina Mhlophe from South Africa.
Upon first hearing about the project, Mhlophe was on board. “She’s a rock star,” Kopp says. “She’s been incredibly gracious and generous with her time.” Liyana is being funded entirely by a grant from National Geographic’s All Roads Film Project as well as donations made through Kickstarter. The project is not yet finished.
Kopp is now working with compositors and animators in South Africa to do the animated portions of the film, but he’s “really stoked about the way it’s coming together. I’m really proud of it,” he says.
To learn more about the film and filmmakers, visit www.LiyanaTheMovie.com.
Neil Berkeley for Beauty is Embarrassing
Neil Berkeley, 35, owner of design-based production company BRKLY by day, found the perfect subject of Beauty is Embarrassing in his friend Wayne White. You might not have heard White’s name, but you probably know his style. He was an instrumental part of the look and feel of Pee-wee’s Playhouse and music videos like Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time,” and more recently he’s emerged as a rising star in fine art.
“When I met him, I realized his resume tracked my entire childhood right into my adult life,” Berkeley says. He was just nervous someone else would get to do a documentary on White first: “I was really scared someone would come along and do it.” It wouldn’t be too surprising if someone had tried, since White is one of the few artists that could get alt-culture heavy hitters like Matt Groening (The Simpsons creator) and Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo singer and prolific soundtrack composer) to attest to his genius.
White’s narrative was even richer than Berkeley had anticipated, though. “It was a much more dense story than I ever thought it would be,” he says. For one, a traumatic incident in the artist’s childhood scarred his family, and changed the way White thought about the world. At another point in the documentary, we see White’s friend — a guy whose art and intensity immediately create parallels between the them — as he thinks aloud on his decision to stay in Tennessee while White took off for New York and later, L.A. One big bonus that made White a great subject was that “Wayne has kept everything he’s ever done,” Berkeley says, including dozens of hours of behind-the-scenes footage at Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
Finally, though, it’s White’s natural drive to create that makes him intriguing and inspiring. “A lot of people talk about it, but he really gets up and does it every day, getting up and doing good art,” Berkeley says. The documentary leaves it clear that White is a compulsive creator; while waiting to do the puppet performances on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, he and his cohort created another puppet show for themselves backstage, just for fun. It’s the mark of a real artist: You do it when nobody’s watching.
Not to mention the fact that the guy is just really charismatic. “I haven’t met anybody who‘s met him who wasn’t magnetically attracted,” Berkeley says. “I knew him as a person would really get people going.” Since burning out on TV production, White has been doing “word paintings” — provocative phrases grafted onto landscape pictures he’s picked up for cheap. They show White’s instinctive flair for making art that’s somehow subversive and fun at the same time.
Berkeley uses all this to great advantage in the film, weaving together White’s biography deftly without ever becoming pedantic. The filmmaker hardly took the storytelling aspect lightly, even though he knew his subject was already gold, partly by keeping in mind Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and it shows: White’s story is made dramatic, with character-defining moments in both triumph and failure. Hearing Berkeley describe the editing process, you realize how much care was put in it. After an initial cut, including one mammoth six-hour cut, he redid it from scratch. As a result, scenes where White becomes more cartoonish end up with a kind of gravitas due to careful editing. Berkeley’s method was “Show me the montage, but then show me the reality,” which meant going from a flurry of images to a shot of White just telling the story, in order to anchor the unreality of fast cuts to a shot that feels more direct. In one scene, Berkeley purposely cuts a little late at the end of a little jokey dance routine White performs, leaving just enough space to see the air go out of the balloon and allow White’s oversized presence to dissipate.
Now looking for distribution, Berkeley had a good experience recently at SXSW, where the film had its world premiere. He was so nervous he refused to look at the line forming for the premiere, telling his friends, “‘Do not talk to me about that line! I don’t want to know if it’s short or small!’” Unsurprisingly, after four screenings, another showing needed to be added.
To learn more about Neil Berkeley and his work, visit www.brkly.tv.
Note: New content and links added August 30, 2012.