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Tribeca ’08: Julie Checkoway on “Waiting for Hockney”

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04232008_waitingforhockney2.jpgBy Stephen Saito

[For complete coverage of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, check out IFC’s Tribeca page.]

Last year, when New York magazine celebrated Richard Avedon’s portrait of a pensive Marilyn Monroe by publishing reinterpretations of the famous photograph, they probably didn’t think to ask Billy Pappas for a contribution. A waiter and busboy from Baltimore, Pappas devoted almost a decade to painstakingly recreating the Avedon snapshot as a hand-drawn sketch, a labor he called his attempt “to take a drawing where Lindbergh took the airplane.”

Pappas was brought back to earth when he decided it was time to introduce his piece to the art world. After rounding up a motley band of supporters to find a way to showcase his work, he settled on trying to get an evaluation from David Hockney. One would think that with a title like “Waiting for Hockney,” the feature debut of director Julie Checkoway would be about Pappas’ pursuit of the famed artist, but that’s only half the story. What Checkoway discovered was a story as riddled with complexities as Pappas’s intricate drawing of Monroe. While the documentary evokes the age-old discussion of what is art, “Waiting for Hockney” also asks the far more fundamental question of what it means to be successful. Recently, I asked a few questions of my own to Checkoway, a former producer for NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “This American Life,” whose film makes its world premiere in the Discovery section of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Why did Billy’s story appeal to you?

I felt like I was meeting someone from my own family. I came from a big ethnic working class family that had aspirations of greatness as well, and when I met Billy, I was like “Oh my gosh, he’s my brother or my father.” And when I met his family, I thought “These are my people. I’m going to have to make a film about them.” I’m obsessed with the way that suffused through our whole culture is this whole notion that you can come from nothing and become something, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s an American dream. But the thing that bothers me about contemporary culture is this notion that many of us walk around thinking that someone is going to save us from our ordinary lives. It’s this “American Idol” syndrome.

I was talking to someone the other day who said he thinks the reason is that we’ve lost a sense of a road map for how a life can be lived, so all we have is this trajectory of being invisible and suddenly being incredibly visible and fixed and fine and redeemed. When that happens for Billy, I was really dubious, but I was also happy for him. At the same time, I’m almost 45 years old and I’ve had many of my own career ups and downs and dreams, so it’d be impossible for me to tell a story about fame that was in some way simplistic, because I think fame is really scary.

04232008_waitingforhockney1.jpgSince you’d never made a film before, how did this idea become a film?

I was doing freelance work for NPR in Baltimore when I encountered this story. 30 hours of audio later, I realized I had something that wasn’t going to make it into a 20-minute slot and that was raising all these bigger issues and that was very visual, but I was in denial. My older brother, who’s one of [“Waiting for Hockney”‘s] producers, said to me, “You know, you really need to think seriously about whether you could make a film of this, because I’m telling you, it’s a film.” I was like, “Don’t tell me that.” [laughs]

It felt very assured for a first film, including your use of archival footage to illustrate how Billy’s sketch evolved and his eventual pursuit of David Hockney. How did that come about?

I wanted to use the vintage footage to give the film this feeling of a caper, like it was antique in a way — not the film, but the behavior of these people seemed out of another century. It’s like the 1930s — we’re going to put a show on in the barn and, gosh darn it, we’re going to be famous! That was what I wanted to get across — this hopefulness about America and “We can do it!” One of the things that didn’t make it into the film [was Pappas’s patron and primary supporter] Larry Link saying, “I’m the best mind of the 19th century,” because he is completely retro in his desire to go back to the pencil. He’s this dandy figure from the 19th century, and Billy is Horatio Alger, and it was stunning to me how they were still living out this story: “I’m going to come up from nothing and I’m going to be an oil baron.”

As someone who needs to tell a story, was there ever a conflict with Billy and his team, since they might have a different agenda in promoting their artwork?

There are two questions in what you’re asking and they’re both good questions. The first is they totally used me [laughs], but because they’re not stupid. There was a point at which we had to make it clear that the film was not an infomercial for Billy’s piece. What was hard was that I loved Billy so much and I loved the piece — for journalistic integrity, I had to pull away from him and he had to pull away from me. I remember him saying “Look, I get it. My art is this portrait and your art is the film, and you just have to do your thing and I have to trust that maybe you’ll present me well.” And I didn’t know if I was going to present him well.

There is a way in which, certainly, he and his team considered the film to be an advertisement for a portrait, but it’s more complicated than that. He’s sort of tied his hopes to the launching of the film to the reveal of the portrait, which is going to happen in New York the night of the [Tribeca Film Festival] premiere [on April 24th]. He waited for Hockney. Now, he’s waiting for “Waiting for Hockney.”

04232008_waitingforhockney3.jpgHas Hockney seen the film yet?

Yeah, he’s been great. Initially, he didn’t want us filming. Then he didn’t want anything to do with the film at all. Then, of course, we had a lot of images of his we put in, and we started to vet them for public domain or fair use and finally our partners in New York said, “Just show him the film.” And they showed [Hockney’s former assistant] Charlie Scheips the film. He loved it and took it to London and showed it to David Hockney, and David Hockney will not endorse the film, but he adored [it]. Being a working class guy himself who came up from humble origins, the film touched him, and so he gave us full permission without having to pay to use images. He will not endorse it, and I completely respect that.

This film took four years to complete, including a hiatus for the birth of your daughter. Do you think that the changes that you went through over that period of time impacted the final cut?

Absolutely. Billy’s narrative arc is not unlike my own. He practically bankrupted himself making this one piece of art. I wouldn’t say I totally financially bankrupted myself, but I strained my family and myself for at least half the [length of] time that Billy did. There’s a way in which his expectations and his desire for the portrait to come out and be seen and loved, and how he then responds to what happens to him, [that] made me that much more realistic about this being just a film. This whole film is about things being just what they are and not more than that. Was I inspired by him? I wouldn’t do what he did, but in a way, by taking on something I’ve never done before, I certainly put myself in the same position. At the end of the day, I have kids, a husband, a house, a family, a full-time job — Billy, you know, he has the portrait. At one point, Billy said to me, “Julie, who would’ve thought it’d take you half as long to make this movie as it took me to finish ‘Marilyn’?” [I said,] “It isn’t funny. Billy.” [laughs]

[Photos: “Waiting for Hockney,” Littlest Birds Films, 2008]

For more on “Waiting for Hockney,” check out the official site here.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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