SXSW Bound with Author T Cooper and Director Benjamin Wigley

11 03 2011

In this segment of SXSW Bound we’ll chat with Author T Cooper about The Beaufort Diaries and chat with Director Benjamin Wigley about PS Your Mystery Sender.  Both films will have their World (Beaufort Diaries) and North American (PS ) premieres out in Austin on Sunday afternoon.  Here are those chats.

Author T Cooper.  Photo by Clayton Cotterell.

T COOPER is the author of three novels: The Beaufort Diaries, Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes, and Some of the Parts.  He is also editor of an anthology of original stories entitled A Fictional History of the United States with Huge Chunks Missing.

The LA native has also adapted and produced a short film based on his graphic novel The Beaufort Diaries.  The animated 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 discussion.

T’s interview about The Beaufort Diaries:

1. Non-Fiction vs Fiction, which is your favorite?

An interesting question.

I can’t really say, but if you were threatening to drown my dog if I didn’t answer, I’d probably say fiction.

If you were threatening to drown my kids, I’d say nonfiction.

2.  Where did you come up with Beaufort?

I had been toying with the idea of writing a graphic novel, and back when the lovely Sarah Palin was running for high office, I remember reading something about her hunting large game from helicopters (which seems really fair when you think about it). I woke up one night from a dream in which she was shooting polar bears, and in the middle of the night right then, I just sat down at my desk and started sketching and writing in the voice of a bear who has to assimilate into the human world because he has no native habitat left. There were also a bunch of stories about all these Bush policies getting rammed through right before the end of his term–tons of drilling and development in and around the Beaufort Sea. Also a handful of striking wire stories about starving polar bears and their cubs wandering into small towns in Alaska and Canada looking for food because there’s nowhere for them to hunt anymore, and residents shooting and killing them in the trash dumps.

I don’t know, I’m not sure The Beaufort Diaries is neccessarily a departure for me–it was a compelling story (to me) that I got interested in telling, and even though it’s about a bear who walks, talks and has sex with hot human models, I think there are some recognizable, universal things in Beaufort’s story. And once I set upon trying to tell it, it just became like any other story, real or made-up. I just wanted it to be good and for people to maybe care about it for more than 30 seconds of their day.

3.  The Beaufort Diaries is such a well-paced quick-witted story that takes us all over Hollywood.  Where did some of these connections come from, Leo Dicaprio connection, Scientology, and eating at Nobu!?!?

Well, thanks for that. Where else would a polar bear who lands in Hollywood go besides Nobu and the Scientology Center?

4.  What was it like working with Alex on the “look”?  How did you envision Beaufort in your head and how much of that is correctly translated by Alex’s illustrations?  The color in the book is quite interesting, would you talk about creating the world that Beaufort comes across?

Well, Alex is a despotic fascist when it comes to his artwork, so I basically just succumbed to his will at every turn. Wait, I mean that it was the other way around. No, basically, when I first found Alex through placing an ad on Craigslist (iso Austrian male prostitute who also illustrates for cheap), I told him about the character of Beaufort and the proposed story. I told him I’d be writing each chapter according to each illustration I had in my head. I pretty much story-boarded the book that way, and explained what I wanted Beaufort to be doing in each of the different scenes. Sometimes I’d send Alex source material, like the Scientology e-meter, or Nobu’s interior, or the “Hang in There” AA poster, or the kind of Beverly Hills house with a swimming pool that I envisioned Beaufort hanging out with his buddies at. Alex added way more than I could’ve imagined to the overall look and feel of the book–bringing in the various washes and palettes and blending illustration and photography. After we completed the first dozen or so pages of the book as an excerpt (which is when my German publisher bought it), Alex and I had an actual deadline, so we met at my apartment in New York for a few hours one afternoon when he was in town, and we talked through each illustration, page by page. Then he went off and did his magic, and I did mine (if you can call it that), and finally, we tweaked things here and there before final layout/publication. Basically, I wanted Beaufort to be that iconic stranger in a strange land, and I think Alex really nailed that in a lot of arenas–from Beaufort’s personality and expressions to the landscapes that we have him wandering through. Which really leant itself to film, which brings us to your next question…

5.  When did you and Alex start talking about Beaufort as a film project?  What was the timetable from idea of it as a film, to getting David Duchovny on board (also was he the first choice as the voice of Beaufort?)?  How much involved with the production were you?

A few months before the English edition of the book was supposed to be published, I called Alex (or maybe I texted him. It’s likely I texted, e-mailed and called him), and told him I wanted to make an animated short film adaptation of the book, in time for the book’s publication if possible. He says I told him I wanted to make a “trailer” for the book, but he is wrong: I told him I DIDN’T want to make a trailer for the book, because for the most part, book trailers suck. At any rate, he seemed into it, and had someone in mind who could help us achieve this (Drew Jordan), and then it was off we go, the three of us. I went through the book and tried to pull together a script filled with scenes that seemed like they’d be cool and visually-stimulating to have animated. I was envisioning a sort of picaresque journey for our Beaufort. Then I recorded David Duchovny reading the script into my laptop in a couple takes, sent the sound files to Alex and Drew over the interwebs, and they started building the sets, Alex started illustrating, and they got to shooting the thing. I had originally wanted Barack Obama for the voice of Beaufort, but he was selfishly busy running the country. So David Duchovny was a close second, and he did alright. I guess.

6.  How did you get the call from SXSW?  What are your expectations for Austin?

I was sitting in a suburban strip mall parking lot mailing packages at UPS surrounded by two feet of snow when I got the call. It made a very un-compelling day suddenly very compelling. I mean, I think I had just been inside Target buying laundry detergent before UPS. I was (and we are) very honored to be included in the festival, and that’s not just me kissing ass.

As for Austin, I am expecting a more auspicious visit. Speaking of our 44th president, the last time I was in Austin was for the Texas Book Festival. I and my co-editor on an anthology I published (“A Fictional History of the United States With Huge Chunks Missing” edited by T Cooper and Adam Mansbach), were in town for the fest, and Obama was also there, giving a reading from one of his books (this was in 2006 or 2007 I think). As authors at the fair, Adam and I were offered two of the coveted tickets to go see Obama read–but we had to submit to background checks in order to do so. Well, we missed it, and I was bummed. Adam overslept, and my background check came back rejected. I have no idea why.

7.  Do you mind if I ask what projects you’re working on now?

Author T Cooper.  Photo by Clayton Cotterell.

You may ask, but I don’t really feel like talking about that because there are both too many and too few worth mentioning.

Here is the trailer to The Beaufort Diaries.

The Beaufort Diaries has its World Premiere in Austin on Sunday March 13 at 1:30PM at the Alamo Lamar A 1120 South Lamar Blvd.

And now.

Director Benjamin Wigley runs a production company called artdocs, which specializes in documentary films about artist’s work, whilst also having an artistic approach to the filmmaking process itself.

As an independent filmmaker Ben’s first production was a film charting his journey to Siberia to visit a religious community of around 5000 people for a celebration of the their leader, a man they believe to be the second coming, called “In Search of the Vissarion”,

PS Your Mystery Sender is Ben’s first time director debut, and he produced the film through ‘artdocs’.

Interview with Director Benjamin Wigley:

1. Ben can you tell me a bit about where you’re from and when you first became interested in the creativity in the arts community?

I’m from Essex in the UK, I studied fine art and then moved onto making films through my interest in cinifilm and photography, when I left my fine art Degree I realized that I didn’t have many technical skills, so I spent some time up-skilling with Apple training certifications and buying cameras and making a lot of work with friends and for small charities etc.

2.  What were your early film projects like?  It seems, from your Artdocs website, you do a lot of videos for galleries, artists and other forms of artistic impression.  I’m curious how you decide the projects you’re going to get involved in?

I still work for galleries like the Tate and other organizations like National Trust, making work about art, its my background and so I find great pleasure in talking to artists and experiencing the work. Quite often they are commissions where people approach me, they are looking for a filmmaker who can create every part of the film, from sound scape to graphics, shooting and editing, I come as one package mostly.

3.  All your bios bring up “In Search of the Vissarion”.  How important was this project and what was the journey like?

Incredibly important, this is where I ‘cut my teeth’ with the help of an experienced director called Doug Smith, he mentored me in his own time when no one else would finance or invest in me, if it wasn’t for him I don’t think I would’ve finished. It was the first time I can dealt with so much footage and really made me understand how to write a film, the craft of editing and the extra visual sequences that help tell a story. It was very important project for me.

Director and Cinematographer Doug Smith with Director Benjamin Wigley.

4.  Speaking of artdocs, when did the inspiration to create a production company come from?  How do you determine the material that is artdoc worthy?

Its still in its infancy really, but I suppose it has to have a creative slant, either about art, or have an innovative and creative approach to the subject. This is the work I want to make and I want to be known for.

5.  When did you first become aware of Paul Smith‘s work?  How did the film project take shape and when did you decide to make the documentary your directorial debut?

Director Ben Wigley and Sir Paul Smith (on bike).  Photo by Julian Hughes.

There was a scheme called Bridging the Gap , run by the Scottish Documentary Institute, each year they have a different theme, this year was surprise. So I was talking to my wife and she said she had seen an object on the Paul Smith Blog. So I went to great efforts to bring this proposal to his attention, by writing a letter, cutting a trailer from content on youtube and posting it in the same way a mystery object would arrive on his desk. He phoned me two days later.

6.  What was the Sheffield Doc Festival like and how did the film go over with the audience?  On a similar note, what has Paul’s reaction been to the film itself?

Sheffield is a great Festival, I try and go as often as I can, and Paul loves the film, it will be playing as part of a touring exhibition of the objects.

7. Do you have anything you want to make sure you do while at SXSW?

Unfortunately , I cannot attend but I know it is an amazing festival, I’m gutted to miss out

8.  I love the fact that the Daffy Duck stamp is used so heavily in the short.  Was that a choice by Paul, the Mystery Sender, or yourself?

We made that stamp, but it was because of the stamps that were actually on the object, so the same stamp is probably on a few objects that Paul received, I can’t remember if I saw it.

9.  In the wonderful trailer some other things that stood out to me are:  The bike shots, what type of camera rig did you use for those?  The music of the trailer (and I’m guessing the movie) is so fun and yet mysterious (like someone tip toeing), where did it come from?

I shot on various cameras, like the EX3 and the 5D, using some lenses. The music was written by some musicians I know – they worked on Vissarion and are brilliant.

10.  Who would you say are your artistic influences?  Film influences (documentaries or fiction filmmakers)?

Many influences, from Lars von Treet, Terry Gilliam, Wernor Herzog, Jan Svankmajer, and lots more.

Here is the trailer for PS YOUR MYSTERY SENDER.

The short documentary’s North American Premiere happens Sunday, March 13th at 1:30pm at the Alamo Ritz 2 320 East 6th St.

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