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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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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.