During this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, I happened upon the film Untitled, which caught my eye mainly because it dealt with the artworld. As the festival director noted in introducing the work to a full audience at the Kabuki Theater, several major films have sought to get under the skin of the art world. In his view, though, they all had missed their mark. I had to agree. Untitled, however, was a nice surprise, rippling with good-natured humor that seemed to both expose and embrace the eccentricities and absurdities of the artworld and the artists struggling for a footing there.
The film's creator, Jonathan Parker, has trod an interesting path to filmdom. He grew up in a family that surrounded itself with art. He got interested in music and played in a number of types of groups, including new wave bands. Little did he know that putting together a small music video of one of his bands-this was in the '80s when music videos were still something fresh and unusual-would get noticed by Hollywood producer Brian Grazer. "How about if I pay for your next movie?" Grazer suggested. "Handling this overture with customary deftness," recalls Parker, "I pointed out that I was a musician, not a filmmaker-and there wasn't any next movie."
However, Grazer's offer got Parker thinking about film more seriously and eventually he enrolled in a film class at NYU. He found that film allowed him to combine his creative writing interest with music in a different way than song writing. "For one thing," notes Parker, "you could be funny. The alternative music audience is not looking to laugh." Parker made a few short films and then his first independent feature, Bartleby. We met in his San Rafael office, where next door his writing-producing partner Catherine di Napoli worked readying Untitled for its expected release in October. —PVS
Paul Van Slambrouck: One of the moments in the film when I felt there was an "aha" in the audience was when the gallery owner says to one of the artists, "A gallery has a front room and a back room." I am wondering where that line came from and what it means.
Jonathan Parker: Early on in the research process we were interviewing a gallery owner and during the course of the interview I asked him to describe some of the things he does on a daily basis. He said, "Every once in a while I have to have an adult conversation with an artist." I said, "What do you mean by an adult talk?" He said, "Well the artist often doesn't understand where they fit in the art world." It turned out in this case that the artist's work was being sold out of the back room to corporate clients and the artist wanted a show in the gallery, but the owner didn't want to show the work in the gallery. And that became our entire plot. We didn't have that idea at that time. For me it was just perfect.
PVS: The revelation of that arrangement for the artist whose work is being sold out of the backroom, but is denied the big show in the gallery, comes as a real blow. Is it meant as some sort of condemnation of the gallery world?
JP: No. Frankly, why should you have to sell the art? There is really nothing wrong with the front room/ back room thing.
I collect art of a certain type and I noticed that because the art I am interested in is not the most trendy type of art, you encounter this front room, back room idea and realize it has been around forever. The front room is often for emerging artists and in the back room they are selling art in the secondary market, which refers to art that has already been sold once, and if the artist is still living, he or she may be quite old. So there is a more established market for that artist and the gallery is depending on income from those artists to support the emerging artists out front.
PVS: In the film, there is this balancing act of the more commercial face of art and the more edgy face of art. Is that part of what the film is about and, as an artist, a filmmaker yourself, do you see those two worlds in operation?
JP: Oh, absolutely. It's part of the classic dilemma that I always love to work with: if your work is not accepted, is it because it's ahead of its time? Or is it because it's simply not good? You are never quite sure. And that dilemma has a lot of comic potential-that struggle.
PVS: Can you tell us something about the genesis of the film? What was your role in the central idea?
JP: Well, the idea came from a couple of different strands. I grew up in a family that had a lot of art around. My mother is an artist and my parents collected art so I had some familiarity with that world, although I was always more of a writer and a musician.
Also, my son became very interested in being an artist. He really introduced me to this world of galleries and contemporary art. So, as I toured around with him, I also began to be attracted to a particular type of art. I started following it and collecting a couple of works and began going to a lot of art fairs in New York and auction houses. There was this funny contrast that kept coming up. I could stand in front of a Rothko, for instance, and really feel a kind of religious experience. But the funny thing is people who are buying, especially really expensive work, their motivations are totally different. You start to see the same kinds of people over and over again. A typical couple might be in their 50s or 60s. The woman is very enthusiastically looking at things and usually they are being guided around by a young person who works for the auction house and whose advice you overhear, and it sounds suspect. The man obviously became wealthy in business and is proud to be able to pay for this expenditure, but not personally that interested himself.
So, there's a lot of humor there. And it is all so far removed from what you imagine the artist was thinking when creating the art, and what he might have hoped for the art. Instead, it devolves down to represent a kind of social status, a popularity contest on some level, to be able to show off this piece of art. I saw that as a comic setup.
PVS: The humor is set up right away in the film, but it happens in the music realm. The lead character is performing his atonal music in front of an audience of maybe ten and, just a few notes into the first piece, a man in the audience stands up in disgust and leaves. It's his father.
JP: I've been a musician since I was a kid and have played professionally in a wide variety of groups and types of music. I've played the types of concerts depicted in the film where, you know, it's a recital for six people. Those things get you thinking because musicians are seriously-trained and serious players and the composer is a seriously-trained artist and musician and yet what is being done has a silly side. Often in exploring innovative sound-making you end up doing the types of things portrayed in the movie. So there is this very serious approach to doing something that's kind of silly.
I always loved the bit (in the movie) where the percussionist is kicking a bucket as an instrument. They're rehearsing and Adam's character says "No, not like that!" The percussionist, being the serious musician that he is, says, "Ok, I'm going to practice kicking that bucket for twenty hours." So there are a couple of different comic threads that we wound together.
PVS: I think the first hint of the comic side of the film is that poster of the main character, the atonal music composer. In that poster he has this very, very serious expression on his face.
JP: Yes, I think brooding is the way to describe it. We all brood when our original work is not met with the reaction we hoped for.
PVS: Looking at this film and the others that preceded it, it seems that humor is pretty central to what you do.
JP: Yes. I consider myself a comic writer. It's brutal because if you miss by just a little bit, it falls totally flat.
I was a writing major at Stanford and I wrote a lot of short stories, but film writing is a totally different way of setting up a comic moment. One of the goals I had for Untitled was to do a lot of what are called "comic reveals," which is a technique that goes back to the silent era. I always use the example of Chaplin called 1 a.m., in which you see him come home in a tuxedo at 1 a.m.. He's drunk and he finds a note from his wife. Obviously she's left him. You see him from the back. His shoulders are shaking and you think he's crying, and then he turns around. He's shaking a martini. That kind of comic reveal is one of the goals I had for Untitled. For me the best kind of comic writing is when you don't use dialogue. We have a number of such scenes in the film, like when the composer sees the crowd waiting in front of his concert hall. He wells up with excitement. But then a bus comes by and picks up all the people. They were just there waiting for the bus.
I really love that! To me, that's the kind of ultimate goal of comic screen writing. You don't see it that much. When sound came in people got lazier and relied more on dialog. On most TV sitcoms, you don't need the picture at all. The jokes are all in the dialogue.
PVS: That kind of humor must be written, but it is really wordless...
JP: Right. It is totally written, but there's no dialogue. Laughter is an interesting emotion because it's produced by a mental process. Making people laugh is a mental thing. Even with a physical bit, what is making people laugh is a mental process. It's a series of shots and cuts that produces an idea that gets a laugh. There's a great saying, "Life is a tragedy for people who feel, and a comedy for people who think." I got that in a fortune cookie.
PVS: Now, the music depicted in the film is atonal. I don't know if that is the right term, but I wonder if you have a background in that particular type of music.
JP: Well, the music is not "atonal," which is a word commonly used to describe the music of Arnold Schoenberg, which he actually called "serial music." It's based on a twelve-tone system he created. We do have a brief performance of a piece by Schoenberg in the movie. Amazingly, that piece was written almost 100 years ago and still, to this day, if you put it on people will leave the room. After all that time it still sounds so modern, yet it's very old.
The person who scored the film is David Lang, who won the Pulitzer last year. I met him at Stanford when we were both undergrads and I played his early music then. I think he's a genius and his music is going to be remembered for a long time. So I am a fan of contemporary music and I've played a lot of it.
PVS: You made an interesting transition from music to film when a film producer saw one of your self-produced music videos back in the 1980s. He asked if he could pay you to do another film. You said, well not really, because I am a musician. Then you reconsidered. Why?
JP: The video we had shot was just a little thing. We shot it on Super 8. This was a time when music videos were just beginning in the early 1980s. It cost nothing. The reaction to it was what really surprised me. I showed it to a bunch of friends and they really laughed. I never thought people would react that way. So after this guy called up-and he was a big Hollywood producer-l began to think, well, if that guy thinks this is funny, maybe I need to put the pictures with the music.
PVS: What did you do then? It seems like a rather daunting thing to just switch gears and say ok, I'm going to be a filmmaker.
JP: I was in New York for a year. I took a five or six-week film class at NYU and decided to make a short film. I had an idea for one. It was just kind of an experiment, so for $5,000 I made a short film. My influences were Laurel and Hardy, and that era of people, so it was kind of a modern version of my interpretation of Laurel and Hardy. I edited it myself and the film had a strong style. I created a character that I played myself, called The Quirky Man. He dressed very lively, and we did some slapstick stuff making the effects very obvious-you could see the strings and so forth. We had a good reaction and got in some film festivals. So, I started doing one of these every couple of years.
PVS: So you did a couple of these small films and then went into the real estate development field?
JP: Well I had already made that move. I was in my early 20s and the music business had dried up for me so I started to work in real estate. But I was never leaving the arts, I was just going to do films on the side.
PVS: Is the main thread through all this for you the writing?
JP: It is. The writing and the art direction. The art direction is critical to my work. I try to create an exaggerated world with the visuals. I like to put it all in front of the camera rather than doing a lot of sophisticated moves with the camera, which is not particularly helpful in comedy. So I am less concerned with how the camera moves than with what is put in front of the camera.
PVS: At the SF Film Festival the director introduced your film by saying there have been several well known films that attempted to satirize the art world and that in his view they had missed, but that yours had landed a bulls-eye. I am wondering how conscious you were in developing your film of other attempts or failures. Did you go into this with some trepidation that you might not get it right.
JP: You're always assuming you're not going to get it right while you are writing the thing until you wind up with a good script, which is something that takes a long time for me.
PVS: How long did this script take, from beginning to end?
JP: Probably two to three years. I work with Catherine di Napoi and we bat around a lot of story ideas and things always turn out much different than what you start with. I think one of the things we started with was as simple as "happy guy, sad guy." We had the idea of the brooding music guy and the happy, commercially-successful, blissful guy and it's always a challenge, story-wise, to get two people who are so different in personality together. Why are they together? They can never be friends, so you end up making them relatives because that's the only way they would be associating.
I still have a lot of trepidation about how it's going to play. There are people who are heavily invested in the art and music world that may find it less funny. They may find it insulting on some level. I have no idea. So, there is always some trepidation.
PVS: Is the release phase in some respects the worst part of the process?
JP: Oh yes, it is a very stressful moment when you throw something out there and the economics are so dependent on reviews, especially because it is an art-house film that will live or die by the reviews. So reviews are critical. It's an anxious time because showing your film doesn't allow you to actually DO anything. When I was a musician you would go play and that was a sort of cathartic experience, but showing a movie is very passive in the end. There is no active performance, no way to release the stress.
For me, though, performing was never my favorite part of music. If you are a performer, an actor or a musician, you need that audience. But for me, when I was in bands, I was always frustrated by the live experience because you could never get the material to sound exactly as intended. I didn't need that immediate audience reaction. There is obviously an energy there, but I preferred being in the recording studio getting it right once. And that's why I like filmmaking. It's a recorded art. You know, you just have to get everything right once, and you have numerous opportunities to modify things and fix things. Your script is just a blueprint. The moment actors show up things change. They're coming up with ideas. They're doing things you didn't plan. So, you do the production and get into the editing room and you have this whole world of material. Basically you're rewriting the whole thing, adding music, visual effects, and you continue to modify and modulate. It's much more of a sculpting process. Of course, ultimately you're in a seat in the theater sweating, hoping that the movie goes over.
PVS: Do you inevitably feel that the film is never truly done, that you always wish you could do some more tinkering? Or do you reach a point where you are ok with the final product?
JP: No. I could go to that film right now and make a number of cuts and changes, but what happens is you have x amount of money and eventually you run out so you have to stop. Like, right now if I want to go make three cuts in the movie it's a very expensive process. All the music and sound, everything has to be altered.
PVS: How did you find the process of working with actors?
JP: It takes some getting used to. I know with Bartelby, the first time I worked with real actors, it was intimidating at first. You hope you get a lot of good will from the cast because you wrote it and they liked the script. That was the case with Bartleby. They really liked the project and they were trying to be helpful. Things were not quite so smooth on The Californians (Parker's second independent feature).
I've never had a problem knowing what I want, but a lot of it just depends on who the actors are and whether they are there to challenge you or to work with you to make it as good as it can be. The best thing is when the actors show up knowing what they are going to do. They've studied it, they've thought about it, and they've made a bunch of choices and they know basically how they are going to play their parts. You want them to come in with that attitude. Sometimes people come in and they are not sure. They look at you and say, you know, "How do you want this? I could play it a hundred different ways." And when I am confronted with that from an actor, I'm like, jeeez, I don't want it a hundred different ways, I want it the right way. So, you get different types. I find that the best actors are the ones who show up and know what they are going to do.
With film you don't really get much of a chance to rehearse. Everyone's schedules are so complicated that it's a heroic effort just to get them there when you need to shoot. They are always coming into a production at different times and they are almost never all there at the same time, anyway, so rehearsing is impractical and usually not superbeneficial anyway. You have conversations and you can usually tell whether they are getting it or not.
With Untitled, one of the three lead actors had already made a trip out to New York and we actually did a little rehearsal for about two hours and later that day the actor said, "I don't think I'm right and I'm not going to do it." I am shooting this lead part in five days so we had to make lots of calls. But sometimes the karma is with you and we ended up with a much better person for the role than we originally had.
PVS: So you have to be in the middle of things the whole time, particularly on the set?
JP: Yeah, you're creating a whole world out of a script.
PVS: One of the things that came through is that while the satire is biting at times, it also becomes clear as the film goes on that you actually have a soft spot for all the eccentricities that go into the art world.
JP: Yeah, we tease all the characters, but we love them all, too. I wanted to be very careful about not being mean-spirited when making fun of people. I wanted to make fun of them, but didn't want it to be mean or condescending and hopefully that came through.
PVS: Do you consider your work deeply personal?
JP: Absolutely. I can only make films like that. I couldn't make the kinds of films that get studio financing. There are a lot of people who can do that far better than me. The world is not short of those kinds of commercial movies, though. I can only do my idiosyncratic thing.
PVS: Do you find it still as satisfying as when you got into it? Does it ever become a process where there are so many hands in the stew, that you end up with a product that you're not terribly thrilled with?
JP: I've had that happen and it is no fun, and it is not a successful process. But you learn a lot more from a failure than you do from a success. It's even hard to tell just what a success is. With Bartleby, after the whole process, we had a lot of really good things happen with that movie. It was the opening night movie at the Museum of Modern Art's New Directors Festival, which is a big deal, and it played a number of big festivals and got a decent theatrical release. But our perception after that whole process, because it was not financially successful, was that it wasn't successful, period. And so we were like, "Ok, let's not do that again." Then having gone through The Californians and attempting to be more commercial, and realizing what true non-success feels like, looking back at Bartleby was suddenly looking at it with different eyes. But I could not have made Untitled without having gone through the horrors of The Californians. With Untitled, I'd say it's the first time I felt satisfied that the movie turned out good.
PVS: Does anything call you at this stage of your life back to a smaller, more controllable form of art? Filmmaking involves a lot of people; there is a lot of exposure. Do you enjoy that part of being an artist or does some part of you wish you could get back to something smaller, closer, more controlled?
JP: Well for a film, it's pretty small and personal. I mean $2 million is a lot of money, but for a film it's not a lot of money. I don't feel like it was an out-of-control process at all. I don't have any desire to go bigger because, if you are making a film for $2 million or $20 million, the problems are all the same. I tell this to students all the time. If you go out and put together a production, even if it only has five or six people, they are going to run into every one of the same problems that you would run into making a bigger movie. And I've spoken to people who have made huge movies. The problems are always the same. Hey, the actor didn't show up. We lost our permit and can't shoot here. The size of Untitled I like. Part of being a director is being the captain of the ship and I enjoy choosing people who are really talented and can bring a lot to the project.
PVS: What's the writing process for you? How private or sequestered a process is it?
JP: I wish it was more sequestered on some level, but it's hard to get that sequestration. I have a family and kids. I suppose I could do it, but I find that I don't need that lone guy in a cabin thing. Usually Catherine and I will talk out the stories. We're working on a new one right now and I have a script going, I have an outline going, and I have a kind of a prose treatment going. I just proceed until hitting a wall in one of those formats and then I switch to one of the other formats to see if that will clear things up. Between the two of us, we usually talk through things. I find it enjoyable, and I do a lot of research. The research is enjoyable. For instance, we interviewed a lot of art gallery people. I went on studio visits with gallery owners and became friends with them and artists.
PVS: For many artists, art isn't an end product. It's about the process. Does that work in the film world as well? If you look deeply into what you are doing, is it about the process more than this result, the film you've made?
JP: Yes. In the movie, the old man at the end has that line, "The artist must find meaning in the process," and I think that's probably the best guide. If you are having trouble determining what's worthwhile and what may be worthless, that could be a reliable criteria because it shifts away from the end product and shifts to the process. The process of making a movie is just amazing because you are covering every single art form. It's a cool thing to move through from script to art direction to working with actors to editing, to the sound and the music. It's a great spectrum. .