SXSW Bound with Directors Alex Petrowsky, Joe Bailey and Steve Mims

3 03 2011

In a week and a few days there will be a slew of world premieres happening in Austin, Tx.  Two of those films are, THE BEAUFORT DIARIES and INCENDIARY: THE WILLINGHAM CASE.  I corresponded with the Directors of both of these films.  Here is the conversations with Director Alex Petrowsky of The Beaufort Diaries and Directors Joe Bailey Jr. and Steve Mims of Incendiary:  The Willingham Case.

Beaufort is just a small town bear, living in a lonely world… What happens when an arctic refugee finds himself adrift in LA-LA Land? Behold Beaufort’s rocket rise to stardom, his inevitable crash and burn, his enduring, inspiring friendship with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and his painful journey to redemption and bear-awareness. David Duchovny stars as the eponymous polar bear hero in this animated short based on author T Cooper‘s graphic novel “The Beaufort Diaries.”

Alex Petrowsky.

How does it fill to come from the land of Fritz Lang, Josef Von Sternberg, Fred Zinnemann and Otto Preminger (just a few of the native Austrians who became filmmakers)?

I have never thought of myself as a film-maker, and I’m not much of a patriot, so I’m pretty indifferent about this.

I love how you’re a self-proclaimed nomad who lives in NYC, MO, and NM.  Tell me a bit about the benefits of such a nomadic lifestyle and do you have a favorite place?

I think one of the important tasks of an artist is to observe. If you stay in one place too long you get accustomed to a place, you assimilate, what used to be exciting when you first got there becomes boring routine. It’s like this: when you first arrive at a place you’ve never seen before, you observe everything, and everything seems stronger and more exciting. The sun is warmer, the air is fresher, pineapples taste like no other pineapple you’ve ever had, people are more interesting, local customs are more fun. Then you decide to stay because you just experienced all this overwhelming beauty; and from this day on you never see these things in the same light. You don’t even notice half of them any more.
So I try to travel as much as I can. I sleep on couches, in trailers, even floors. Most of my possessions fit in a couple of suitcases. And since I work from my laptop all I need is an internet connection to conduct business.

I can’t say I have a favorite place. The combination of the individual parts is what makes the parts shine.

Education wise – “I have a bachelor’s degree in marketing, a bachelor’s degree in studio art, and a master’s degree in printmaking.” – can you tell me about Webster University and how has the college experience shaped your film-making process?

Well, academically Webster University did not teach me anything about film-making; I was a Management and Studio Art major, and didn’t even really have any film department friends. What they taught me though, was a way of thinking, a methodology if you will. There are two important aspects in the making of anything: concept and presentation. Most people neglect one of the two, but without a concept the best presentation becomes meaningless, and without the right presentation the best concept seems uninteresting.
I had great teachers that mostly taught in a very non-academic fashion. It seemed like they weren’t actually teaching anything but then I figured out that it was about how to ask the right questions. Once you know that, you become your own teacher. Which is extremely helpful if you plan on learning things for the rest of your life.

How has the art world and your experience curating shaped you as an artist and thus as a film-maker?  Do you have a favorite style, artist, or piece of art?

I do not have a favorite artist, style, or piece. As a matter of fact, I don’t have a favorite color, food, or musician either. For me exploration is the key. Once you have found your favorite you can stop the search.
I like experiential art. Something that gives you more of an experience than looking at a piece of paper with a drawing on it. That was exciting when people did not have photography and video or virtual realities. Back in the day people were scared when they watched “The Great Train Robbery”, now they’ve seen everything from aliens and zombies to ultra-violence. I’m not saying everything needs to be sensational, but it should stimulate more than just one sense.
My problem with contemporary film-making is that generally people either focus on technical execution, or on the story. Movies with the highest production values are generally boring one liners that are only driven by special effects, and the smartest films generally disregard technological advancement in this industry altogether. I know a lot of that has to do with budgets and profitability, but maybe that’s something I learned from my art practice: aways make the best of the resources you have.

What is Flying Fish Productions and what are your hopes with the production team?

Flying Fish Productions is a media production company me and a friend started after graduating from art school. We had so much fun collaborating on art and knew so many talented people, we figured we should be able to make a living off of what we do. Our first gig was a promotional film for  dentist. He entered it in some competition (best promotional effort, or something along those lines) and won a car. I don’t even know what my function on that particular job was, I had never used a camera before.

Over time it turned into a very design oriented marketing company. We try to create messages that stand out, but not by being louder or bigger, or brighter, but by providing something that the “target audience” actually wants to see. Rather than yelling “buy our product!” into a room full of people, we try to spot the people who might be interested in the product, ask them what a product like this should do, and then create something in response that either educates, enlightens, or entertains. There are already too many sale signs everywhere.

How did you first meet T Cooper and when did you two start working together artistically?

Ha. We met online. I always wanted to say that. And it’s true.

Illustration wise Beaufort is a hip but relaxed bear.  What were the inspirations for his look and also the feel and look of the whole graphic novel?

I had thought about a photo and drawing collage style for quite a while, and when this project came along it seemed a perfect fit. T liked the first illustrations and that was it. I tend to have  a very minimalistic approach to my work, generally only providing enough information you need to understand the narrative, stripping away unnecessary imagery. I also tend to think very black and white and just like to add a small amount of color to balance things out.

When did you all bring David Duchovny on board and how much has his distinct voice added to the character of Beaufort.

That was all T’s making. I’ve always admired David’s talent and feel incredibly honored to have gotten the chance to work with him.

How did the story gain momentum to become a film?  And what was it like shooting Beaufort?

As far as I know T had turned another story into a short. So one day he approached me and asked if I was interested in making a “trailer” for the book. I thought it was a great idea, and we both agreed that it should be a creation of it’s own, rather than a traditional “trailer”, where you cut together some of the more visually interesting scenes and give away half of the story.
It was a lot of fun shooting Beaufort, he is such a great character. I have always been intrigued by somewhat awkward, misunderstood characters, and Beaufort is a perfect example for that.

What is the animation process like?  How long did it take to make the film, what were the challenges compared to your illustrations from the novel?  Adding the movement to Beaufort was it tough or fun to accomplish that?  What about the whole world of Beaufort Diaries?

We did not have much time to create the film. I remember drawing all the bear images on a roadtrip from St. Louis to New York and back. In a way it was easier than drawing the images for the book, because at this point I was very familiar with Beaufort, his personality, his look, etc.
Once everything was drawn out I inked, scanned and vectorized the images, built the sets on a gigantic “Lazy Susan” , got images ready for the backdrop projections and pretty much storyboarded it. Then I had my very talented videographer Drew Jordan shoot it and lay the animations on top of it. I tried to give the moving Beaufort a very similar aesthetic to the still one, and so the layering of backgrounds and flats on set made a lot of sense. We shot the whole thing in a few hours, one of those long nights in the studio, everybody was exhausted halfway through, but there was no stopping.

You’re now under two weeks away from the World Premiere.  How nervous and/or excited are you for the premiere?

Profusely sweating. No. I actually have no expectations. I’ve been meaning to attend SXSW for a few years now (I have a lot of friends who perform during the music part every year), but for some reason that never happened, so I am very excited to come this year. As far as the premiere goes, it’ll be nice to see viewer reactions in real time.

Where do you see the film going from here and what are the goals of the project?

I think Beaufort still has a pretty exciting life ahead of him, there are plans, but I’ll keep those a secret for now, I’ll keep you posted when they actually happen.

Enjoy the Trailer to Beaufort Diaries.

Austin-based Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr. teamed up to tell the jarring tale of Cameron Todd Willingham.

In 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham’s three daughters died in a Corsicana, Texas house fire. Tried and convicted for their arson murders, Willingham was executed in February 2004 despite overwhelming expert criticism of the prosecution’s arson evidence. Today, Willingham’s name has become a call for reform in the field of forensics and a rallying cry for the anti-death penalty movement; yet he remains an indisputable “monster” in the eyes of Texas Governor Rick Perry, who ignored the science that could have saved Willingham’s life. Equal parts murder mystery, forensic investigation and political drama, INCENDIARY documents the haunted legacy of a prosecution built on “folklore.”

Joe Bailey Jr. and Steve Mims.

Steve you been involved in the Austin movie scene for over 30 years now.  What have been the major changes you’ve noticed in making films from the 80s,90s and now into the new millennium?

The technology is exciting to me.  Being able to shoot digitally while hanging on to a film aesthetic is really remarkable.  Being able to post a film with complete control is a huge improvement also.  Beyond that, I think my old-school background helps me discipline myself to get the most out of these newer tools.

Looking back at some of your films.  The Webb Wilder shorts, really put you guys on the map and became cult hits in the 80s.  Do you have a favorite story of your adventures with Webb?

Webb is one of the smartest and funniest people I have ever met.  He’s a talented man and a pleasure to be around.  My best memory of him is laughing until my sides literally ached riding with him in Casper Rawls’s Checker.

You’ve tackled a lot of different forms of humor in your films.  Where would you say your sense of humor and unique tastes come from?

I love the Marx Brothers, Monte Python and Steve Martin.  But I think the funniest man ever was probably Alec Guiness.  I have a British sensibility, I think, for jokes.  Hitchcock’s humor always strikes me in the right place.

And now jumping to your connection to Joe.  Where and When did you guys meet, i’m guessing its a UT Austin connection?

Joe was a student of mine in production class.  We really hit it off in many ways.  A random conversation about capitol punishment lead to David Grann’s NEW YORKER piece on Cameron Todd Willingham and that conversation led to the film.

I love documentaries and this one was unfolding in the neighborhood.  We felt it was fascinating and that it was worthy of the hours and days it would take to make it.

Obviously this topic caused a big stir in the rationale of the death penalty in Texas.  Is your film geared more to try and show the real side of Todd, showcase the errors of our government organizations, a plea to show the horror of having the death penalty, or a mixture of numerous elements?  Whom is your target audience with this gripping documentary?

We’ve focused on the facts of the original event, the science involved, and how science and politics have collided.  Otherwise, we’re not that interested in making an advocacy film for or against the death penalty.  We’re trying to let the facts speak for themselves.

Gerald Hurst, PhD from Cambridge.

Footage wise, how much did you guys have to go through and what was the editing process like for the film?

We have hours and hours of footage.  It’s taken more time than I can admit to cut it down.  For me the process is about throwing out as much as possible and then organizing what’s left.  We’ve been whittling this way for months and months.

This film does have an added influence in that Rick Perry’s presidential aspirations (or so people say)?  Have you had resistant, help or indifference from the folks over in the capital?  It seems so fascinating that Austin is the hub of filmmakers (mostly liberal-minded folks) and the recent conservative government and all of these folks sharing a small space.  Steve you may have a more hands on view of the changes in Austin over the years, I’m curious how has the landscape of the city changed politically, film wise and then in the academic world?  Joe as a Law student what elements have intrigued you the most about this touchy subject material?

The politics in the film are organic.  They got injected into it by the acts of those in power.  For us, it’s not a ‘right’ or ‘left’ issue.  It’s about doing the right thing and recognizing objective science.  In a way it is all about competence.  All citizens want to trust that evidence in crimes is evaluated properly and that convicted people are handled properly in the justice system.  We can all agree on that regardless of our views on capitol punishment.

The title of Incendiary is a unique choice.  It easily can be looked at for its definition of a person who commits arson or a substance/weapon used to create fires.  But another definition of the word is “a person who excites factions, quarrels, or sedition”.  Now most folks would obviously think to the first set of definitions, but the trailer to your film really showcases the other definition.  I’m curious what do you guys feel your title conveys or what do you want it to convey to the audience?

That’s why we picked it.  It works many different ways and fits like a glove.  Ultimately we can only make a solid film and let it either catch fire or not.

With the film being showcased at SXSW do you feel there will be a big following for the screenings, since it hits home?

SXSW is the perfect place for our film for the obvious reasons.  The premiere at the Paramount is the best place in the world to show it!  We’re thrilled!  It will be the place to be on March 12, 2011.

And here is Joe and Steve’s gripping documentary’s trailer.




One response

11 03 2011
SXSW Bound with Author T Cooper and Director Benjamin Wigley « Pearl Snap Discount

[…] short, directed by the book’s illustrator Alex Petrowsky.  Speaking of Alex, check out our chat with Alex about The Beaufort Diaries short, amongst other topics of […]

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