ETTGS filmmakers interview

Last month Chris King the editor of Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop and Jamie D’Cruz the producer visited LA to attend the International Documentary Awards, where the film was up for best documentary. Whilst they were there Nicole Powers from the Suicide Girls website caught up with them to talk about the film.

Nicole Powers: So congratulations, I understand you’re nominated for an Oscar nomination, so to speak. When did you find out about that?

Chris King: About two weeks ago…There was a lot of shouting and hollering and jumping around. It’s very exciting.

Jaimie D’Cruz: And now we’ve got a real nerve wracking [couple of months]. We have to wait until January 25th to find out the nominations, and that’s quite a long time.

NP: But you can just enjoy being shortlisted?

CK: Yeah, of course, we’re going to enjoy that. Because it started with such humble beginnings, this film.

NP: How did you guys get involved?

JDC: I got a call from Banksy, who I briefly met ten years earlier, saying can you help make a film. I went to meet him and he told me the idea, which was so ridiculous I couldn’t believe he was serious.

NP: What was Banksy’s original pitch?

JDC: His pitch was, I want to make a film about this amazing French guy who’s been making a film about me. It just sounded ridiculous and nonsensical. Obviously I was really excited to get a call from him, because when I first met him he wasn’t known at all, and by that point he’d become world famous.

NP: In what context did you first meet him?

JDC: I used to run a little underground magazine. Part of my job was to know about people doing interesting shit in the underground.

NP: What magazine?

JDC: It was called Touch. It was a black music magazine, but we used to do a lot of graffiti and street culture stuff. I had had a lot of kids working for me, [and one of them told me about] this guy called Banksy who’d been doing some really interesting stuff. We tracked him down and I hung out with him for a couple of nights. He was an impressive young [man], quite clearly ambitious, but a deeply secretive person even then.

NP: Even then?

JDC: Even then. Meeting him even in 1998 or 9, whenever it was, it was like meeting a CIA mole or something. I thought he was really nice and interesting, he was doing some great stuff, and then I never heard from him again. Obviously I monitored [his activities] like the rest of the world. I kept seeing him in other magazines, then in the newspapers.

What happened was he said let’s make a film about this guy Thierry [Guetta]. I was quite skeptical, but was willing to explore. Of course I was excited that he wanted to make a film, because everyone was trying to make a film with Banksy. And they don’t even get a “no.” There’s no answer. You can’t even ask the question. So being approached by him was really exciting and potentially very interesting.

What we did was we looked at some tapes that [Banksy] already had. He didn’t really have much at that stage, but he arranged for me to meet Thierry and he also showed me – which was a key thing – the DVD of Life Remote Control.

Life Remote Control is the film that in our film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, we refer to that Thierry made. It’s an absolutely astonishing feature length bit of torture.

NP: You show clips of it in your film, and even those clips are torturous to watch.

JDC: People assume we cut it to look like that, but that is what it looks like. So basically, I said, “It sounds like a bit of a mad idea – who the fuck’s this guy Thierry?” He just said, “Take this DVD home and watch it, and then I think you’ll see what I mean.”

NP: And it didn’t put you off?

JDC: No, I was sold then. I was like, who made this? Who is the person?

So I met Thierry, called up Chris who is an editor. We’d both worked for the same company on and off for years. Chris has got a really good reputation as a very inventive and creative editor, and I thought that’s clearly what we need. So me and Chris got hold of some of Thierry’s tapes and started watching them.

Initially it was like jumping off a cliff into a sea of nonsense. We didn’t have hundreds and hundreds of hours at that point, we had enough to know that this was going to be potentially quite interesting. And that’s really how the film started.

The other thing that happened at the same time was that I knew that Thierry was going to do his own art show. That was the idea – Thierry was going to do his own art show while we made [the film].

NP: So you came on board in essence half way through the movie when it shifts gears.

JDC: Exactly, yeah. I knew he was going to do an art show, but I didn’t know about the scale of it. As far as I knew, Thierry hadn’t done anything ever before [by way of] an art show, so I just thought it was a bit of a strange idea, but [that] it might be interesting.

Also, we didn’t have a plan that this would end up being a theatrically released documentary feature. [We thought] maybe we’ll get a DVD out of it, maybe it’ll go on YouTube.

CK: Sometimes [Banksy] has videos playing in the back of his exhibitions, we thought it might be that. I think we both just thought it’s different, and it’s an opportunity to work with an artist who’s got funky ideas about things.

NP: To what degree did Thierry’s art show snowball because of the documentary process?

JDC: Not really at all. I don’t think the process of us making the film was the thing that made Thierry’s show extraordinary. But it’s probably also true to say that Thierry wouldn’t have done an art show unless Banksy had suggested to him to go and do an art show.

CK: Thierry, as you see in the film, was absolutely enraptured by his relationship with Banksy. He couldn’t believe that this man that he’d been idolizing for so long had let him in and they’d become friends. He was in awe of him.

NP: It was like this command from God: Go forth and do an art show.

CK: Banksy probably didn’t quite grasp how deep it was with Thierry…At that stage, Banksy and other people in the street art world have been expecting Thierry to deliver a film which actually tells a story. Clearly Life Remote Control wasn’t that, and [Banksy] was a little crest fallen. So I think initially he sat and mused for a while. He wanted to see if those rushes actually contained enough footage to make a more conventional kind of street art history. Because [Thierry] was with all the major players, so surely there was going to be enough stuff in there to do that.

We initially sat down in February or March of 2008 and had a look through this first suitcase full of tapes. They were all unmarked, had nothing written on them, [and we had] no idea about who anybody was on any of them either really. We didn’t have any idea of the order of them, the chronology of it or anything. We had in our mind the idea that we were going to try and turn this into a street art documentary, but it was clear that we weren’t going to be able to do that because of the way Thierry shot it.

He was great at climbing up on roofs with all these guys. When we found this stuff, it was all kind of visceral, exciting stuff, but he never took any shots of the actual work. At the end of it he never stood back and got a nice steady, locked on shot of the piece. So obviously it was going to be very difficult to make a film where we looked at the art.

But in the process of looking through all this stuff and working it out, you know Thierry’s in his own footage quite a lot. He’d put the camera up on a wall and then he’d be wandering around and he’d be having conversations with the artists. It’s not the conventional way of filming things. We would just be laughing at him, because he’s just so funny – he’s a bit like Jacques Tati…We thought, this guy’s great, and we began to see why Banksy thought it’d be worth investing time in it.

Then there was another tape somewhere where he was driving back from a hit with an artist and there was a conversation going on in the back of a truck or in the back of the van. The camera, as always, was just left running on the back seat, filming the floor or something, but the sound was recording. There was a conversation going on which was, “So Thierry, how do you get into doing all this stuff?” And he began to tell this yarn, which was [puts on French accent], “Well my cousin was Space Invader in Paris and through him I met these other guys…” And he basically tells the story that you see in the film about how he got into it.

We started to see that this was a really amazing story arc that led to the illusive Banksy. That’s when our initial skepticism about this began to soften and we realized that Banksy wasn’t quite as bonkers as we had thought he had been in the first place. He’s one step ahead of most people. Then we just sorted waded in. At the same time we had had heard that Thierry was putting on a little show of some sort over in LA.

NP: A little show.

CK: We thought we better get a local crew to just go and film a little bit of Thierry’s preparation for this show, to see what happens there. [We had] no idea that it was going to anything like it turned out to be. It was dutifully covering that base. Then reports came back that it was all going pear shaped, and it was a really huge thing, and he had got this enormous space. So then Jaimie jumps on a plane and came over here, and started filming. That’s when the true majesty of Thierry’s ambition became clear to everybody.

NP: Was that when you first got face to face with Thierry?

JDC: I had met him briefly in London, only three or four weeks before the show opened, when he told me that he was doing the show. So I had met him and fallen in love with him as a character. I just thought, this guy is just genius. He said he was doing a show, and he also said he was very worried and scared because he hadn’t made any art yet. There was a great quote, he kept saying [puts on French accent], “I can only go up. For me, I am at ze bottom, and now I can only go up.” I didn’t even know what he meant, [but discovered] basically all it means is that Thierry is just a relentless optimist. He just sees everything in life as full of potential and full of beauty and possibility in a really unusual very instinctive way.

NP: With a thought process like that, if you’re successful, you’re a genius, and if you’re not, you’re delusional.

JDC: Exactly. I think that was when I first thought this is Chance the Gardner from Being There, the Peter Sellers’ film, which is basically about an idiot savant, who, through his innocent pronouncements about the world, is interpreted by the world as a crazed genius. Thierry had this kind of extraordinarily [quality]. For example, when he called his show Life is Beautiful, he literally means life is beautiful. There is no irony or cynicism, or post-modern comment on the state of the world. He just means [puts on French accent], “Life is beautiful. You wake up, you love your wife, your children, ze sun is shinning – why not be happy?” That’s literally what he means. All the art critics would be, “That’s a very clever comment on our cynical society.” And actually it’s not – it’s just because life is beautiful.

CK: Yes, he is completely un-cynical.

JDC: Going back to the storyline, I went out to LA, saw what was going on, realized that this was [something special]. We’d had a couple of indications, phone calls coming back to London saying, “Oh, you’re never going to believe what’s going on.” He broke his leg for example…All of it was kind of great story points from a filmmaking point of view. But it wasn’t until a couple hours before the show opened that I realized this is actually going to be a huge sensation. Because I assumed it was going to be a bit of a disaster with no one there and no art on the walls.

NP: But then the LA Weekly made Thierry’s show their cover story. How did that happen?

JDC: I think they’d heard that Thierry was doing something that was going to be really interesting and really big. They’d somehow got wind of it. There was a bit of talk that this guy had been hanging out with Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Invader, so I guess there was a kind of suspicion that something might happen.

CK: Well he inveigled little quotes out of his mentors, for want of a better word, and then really used them…

NP: Because Thierry didn’t let the fact that he couldn’t make art get in the way of putting on an art show, there was some intriguing speculation…

JDC: Hang on a minute, you say Thierry couldn’t make art, but that’s actually quite a judgmental position to take. Because what does it mean to make art? I’m not going to answer that question, I’m just going to push it out there.

NP: Well that’s one of those questions that your film brings up. A lot of people ask what is art? This film almost begs the question is art a joke.

JDC: I know that Thierry would never in a million years – it’s just not in his makeup, it’s not in his DNA – try to punk everyone by making crap art and selling it for lots of money. He wouldn’t understand that concept. He just makes art.

NP: He did sub-contract some of it though.

JDC: Yeah, but so does Damien Hirst. The factory system is an ancient venerated system that goes back to The Renaissance. There’s nothing new in that. When I’m put on the spot with this question, for me, I think being an artist means having something to say. If you’ve got something to say, you can get monkeys to make it if you want – if they’re conveying your message…My question would be: what is Thierry saying with his art?

NP: There was some speculation that some of the art was done by Banksy.

JDC: That’s not true. Categorically, Banksy didn’t make any of the art in Thierry’s show. Quite the opposite. I hesitate to speak for Banksy, but I can be pretty certain in saying that he wouldn’t have wanted to. Because for Banksy, I think the motivation was [that he thinks] everyone should make art. Banksy’s whole thing has been about taking art away from the galleries and the dealers and the curators, and seeing as a populist form. So the idea that he would make the art for someone else would just be an anathema.

CK: Thierry had been making posters and dabbling in street art, so [Banksy] was obviously curious to see what Thierry was going to come up with. But I’m sure he imagined that it was going to be in a little space somewhere, in a lock-up or a little gallery – one room with a few examples on the wall. I don’t think anybody, particularly Banksy, realized that Thierry was going to take it and run so far and so high with it all. But from Thierry’s point of view I’m sure, having spent all that time with the kind of major players who had put on huge shows, when it came to that point where Banksy casually suggested that he go and do this little show, Thierry just sort of regurgitated all that stuff that he’d absorbed over a decade of hanging out with these guys.

NP: He’s had the best education anyone could have.

CK: Exactly.

NP: No one had had that kind of experience, hanging out with…

CK: …With everybody. Even the artists haven’t necessarily hung out as closely as he had. I think it all just poured out in a completely unfiltered, unmediated way. He just followed his instincts.

I think that you do get a split with the way people view it. One of the other questions that comes up quite often is, all those 5,000 people who turned up at his show, a certain way of viewing the film is that they’re mugs. They go to see this work, and because you’ve seen the process of how that art was [created], and the ramshackle chaotic nature of the show, and the fact that the people had to put Thierry’s work on the walls for him, and the other elves so-to-speak were creating his bits and pieces – because of that, those people were duped. But I’m sure that if any of us had turned up that night and been in that queue and gone in and seen it, we’d have probably had a very nice evening, and seen some interesting bits and pieces – some of it funny, some not.

So the question of prior knowledge about artists and their process, and how you view the art, is another one that came up as we were making the film. It is a pertinent thing, particularly when you see Shepard, Banksy and Invader, who all have very clear motivations about why they’re making art, clear intentions about where it’s going to go and what it’s going to mean and what they want to say. In knowing that, you view their work in a particular way. With Thierry, you’re not quite sure what that motivation or intention is, and perhaps Thierry wouldn’t be able to answer that question either.

JDC: One of the shrewder observations that Banksy makes in the film is that Andy Warhol was genuinely interesting because he took the banal and the every day and he turned meaningless objects into art. Then he says, “But then Terry really made them meaningless.”

I think that Thierry, in a slightly outsider artist, unknowing, instinctive way, has done something genuinely quite interesting for art collectors and for the art establishment. It moves the game on, doesn’t it? How many times can you paint an every object and say that’s art. It has to go somewhere, and Thierry, in a very odd way, has done something quite interesting.

NP: It’s almost like the artist is the everyday object.

CK: If you think about a lot of the conceptual artists…all the [Young British Artists], they had a thing of using their life stories as conceptual art. And if you look at Thierry’s life, it’s like an art piece in itself. The whole thing of going around for years, obsessively filming and putting things in boxes and never watching it, it does feel like some kind of situationist art thing that he was doing, but he just wouldn’t be self-aware enough to realize that you know.

NP: He’s a walking installation.

CK: And I think that Banksy, Shepard and Invader’s reaction to Thierry’s success, they’re a bit ambivalent about it. Because on the one hand, this is the most democratic of art forms, anyone should be able to have a go. It requires nothing more than a spray can and a wall. At the same time, Thierry’s success seemed to signify the very thing that actually Banksy in particular had hoped that Thierry would kind of puncture, which is the commercialization of it. It was inadvertent, but nevertheless, he somehow felt that Thierry was not exactly personally responsible for it, but was definitely part of adding to that feeling of it being commercialized.

I know that Banksy hoped that his film would be the leveler at a time when it was getting out of hand, and the galleries and the collectors were suddenly buying work. Banksy probably feared that the soul was going to get sucked out of this very democratic movement by money, in the same way that it did for the graffiti scene in New York in the ’80s. Yet Thierry obviously manifestly failed to do that with his film because it was just very strange and unwatchable. But then inadvertently through his art show, he actually, I feel, contributed to the further commodification of art, hence, I think, Banksy’s decision to call the film Exit Through the Gift Shop, which is obviously a big comment on that. But through it all, Banksy is still very fond of Thierry. I think everybody is.

NP: Have you met up with him recently?

CK: I haven’t seen him since we finished the film, because he’s so busy. He’s had a huge exhibition in New York.

JDC: He doesn’t have time for us anymore.

CK: He’s a really major artist now. In fact we had a screening in West Hollywood last night, and, because he only lives in Hollywood, we had hoped he would be able to come along afterwards for a Q&A. But he said [puts on French accent], “I’m too busy. I’m in Miami at ze Basel Art Fair. I cannot come for your little film.” I mean he’s sold work to Silvio Berlusconi and numerous collectors, and he’s had major exhibitions in New York and in Paris, so he’s an art star. He does love the film – we know that. He may have slightly more ambivalent feelings now that he is a major art star, and his perspective of himself may have changed somewhat, but you know…

NP: When you got around to editing and putting the film together, how much input did Banksy have in the process?

JDC: Banksy was incredibly involved in the whole process, from the original conception to the absolute detail of every part right at the very end…We were in the cutting room for a year with Chris, and then another six months after that. It was a very long, but always collaborative process.

Banksy had to leave us alone for a bit while we cut his interviews into the piece, because as a contributor he couldn’t be deciding what bits of his own interview went into the [film]. So he gave us space. Also Banksy’s a busy guy. He’s got other projects going on, so he’d go missing to New Orleans to do the Katrina stuff, he did an animatronics pet store in New York, he’s always off doing weird little missions.

NP: You must have had lots of amazing footage that you just couldn’t weave into the film.

JDC: There’s some great things. For example with Barely Legal there’s some really hilarious stuff where all these big celebs turn up…Thierry’s camera is literally about an inch from Keanu Reeves, Jude Law, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s face. Of course, we thought that’s got to be in the film. But I think Banksy didn’t want us to have it just full of celebrities, so we reigned back on that a bit…Ultimately we had to cut it down to a manageable narrative.

CK: Banksy was very, very clear on this; that this wasn’t just going to be a film for street artists. When we knew it was a film, it was clearly going to be something that would have a wider appeal. Thierry was the conduit by which a mainstream audience and a not necessarily aware audience would be able to learn about street art. His enthusiasm as he first gets into this world is very infectious. We realized that Thierry was the way to draw a crowd that maybe didn’t know about street art into this world. If you digressed too far from the narrative, and went into in-depth potted histories of these artists, it just slowed it down. Thierry’s story, the fact that it is the story of a man and a relationship, is what gives the film it’s momentum and it makes it very easy for everyone to understand.

NP: It’s going to be interesting if you do win the Oscar, because it’ll put this underground art form in the glare of a very bright spotlight, and that changes intrinsically the nature of it.

JDC: Yes, but it’s presented honestly as a movement, if you want to call it that, which is sort of altruistic. Not always, a lot of the people are just there out of the usual graffiti ego and vanity. They’re writing their names in big letters on walls because they want to get known. But overall, you’re seeing why people did it, that it was an underground thing that was about filling public spaces and walls, the different motivations that street artists had. So even if it did get anywhere near the Oscars, I think that it’s a true, honest and proper representation of what the scene actually was about, and not just a mainstream view of it.

NP: It’s interesting to see how attitudes to street art are changing. In England, the local authorities would see a bit of graffiti and white wash over it as a matter of course. But now they actually have to assess the art first. I know there’s been some cases where local governments have realized they’ve white washed over a Banksy piece, and they’ve actually had to bring high end art experts in to restore it.

JDC: The lines get completely blurred by that, and I think that’s a very interesting theme. Again that’s not a theme that we really dwell on in the film, but the concept that street art would be stolen and sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars to bankers – that’s something that sounds like someone’s worse nightmare. Particularly for a street artist because, A, they didn’t do it to be sold, and B, they’re not even selling it.

When you read about those stories where people are demolishing walls and restoring them – that’s theft. But I think that kind of chaos that the street art world descended into, of it all becoming about money and headlines about street artists making fortunes, I think that’s one of the motivations for Banksy to want to make a film, which is actually just to show that this is a very honest and simple art form motivated by passion and the need to answer back. As Chris said, there is a conflict there, which is actually it can be very selfish because you’re writing your name in huge letters on somebody else’s property…

NP: Well it started out as tagging, but became about something else.

JDC: Basically I think the initial motivator for street art is say hello, here I am, I’m here, I exist. Here’s my name, here’s my voice, recognize me.

NP: Does it upset you when people speculate that the film is a mockumentary or some kind of hoax?

CK: It was funny, [at the Berlin Film Festival Banksy] said, “Everything in this film is true apart from the bits where we lie.” Because after Sundance, there’d been immediate speculation that Thierry was played by Sash Baron Cohen and the whole film was directed subversively by Spike Jonze, and it was all made up and a big hoax. For a while we all thought that was quite funny, but it went on for so long. It was a bit disappointing when it became basically accepted as fact, that it was all just a silly hoax. I felt it was a shame that the whole thing was going to be dismissed like that really – because we knew it was true.

JDC: The fact that it provokes intriguing debate is great, and we welcome that. But when it’s actually on the record that this is a mockumentary, that it is a hoax, that’s not acceptable really. I don’t think you can state that as fact, because we’re stating it as a clear fact that it’s a true documentary. I mean it is a crazy film, and it does stretch your credulity. That’s why the film has power because it’s an absolutely fucking crazy story. But the fact that it’s crazy doesn’t mean it’s not true. There’s been so much speculation about it, and I think that it’s good for them to ask the question, and now we are able to answer that question. It pisses me off when you read in serious newspapers that the film is a mockumentary. That’s not true.

CK: And it’s done in a fairly kind of dismissive way, which is why we certainly felt that we needed to come out and answer that properly and set the record straight. It’s just lazy journalism I think. Because film critics – I’ll be wary about what I say here – but they aren’t necessarily investigative journalists. They’ll go and watch the film and have a reaction, and they may be aware of what’s going on in the blogosphere or online. They may feel that they don’t necessarily want to put their reputations on the line by saying it’s real if they’re suddenly noticing activity online which is saying that it might be a hoax. They don’t want to get egg on their face.

NP: They don’t want to feel that they’ve been hoodwinked.

JDC: There’s a very obvious irony here, which is because some journalists have been terrified that they would look stupid by believing the film and therefore would have been hoodwinked by Banksy, by going the other way, they’ve actually been hoodwinked into believing it’s a hoax.

We never intended to do that. But journalists who claim that it’s a hoax, they’re the ones that are going to look stupid in the long run because actually the film is true. Also I think the filmmaking, anyone’s whose made a film would look at that and go, you just can’t make that shit up. If we were clever enough to make that up, we should be here in Hollywood full time working on blockbusters. It’s fantastical. It defies belief that the thing’s been made up, so the simplest explanation is the truth. It’s real.

CK: It’s a classic example of reality being stranger than fiction definitely. And I personally think it is better that it’s a true story. I mean we still get it a bit, but hopefully it’s died down. I think the fact that we now have been nominated and honored by very prestigious documentary institutions should have actually put that to bed. We’ll see – hopefully it has.

Source: Suicide Girls.

Photos: Paranoid Pictures.

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