Note - The second in a series of interviews with the directors of some of our favorite nonfiction features of 2010...
Whenever the subject of EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP has come up in casual or not-so-casual conversation over the past year, a vigorous discussion has followed. I've seen master filmmakers, newcomers, film critics and non-pros all engage in excited, lengthy dissections of the film - sometimes about what's real, what they suspect is not - often about the film's profound take on art and commerce. In the end, no matter what point of view the individual holds, the conclusion seems to always be that it's a major work in the nonfiction canon.
One would be forgiven for not expecting all this when Sundance announced EXIT as a late addition to the 2010 festival. The debut film by Banksy - the anonymous British artist who gained notoriety and fame for his often-politically charged work that would turn up in some very unusual places (inside museum galleries, on the West Bank wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians) - EXIT would leave the festival spurring numerous distribution offers and go out on its own, working with sales agent John Sloss and distributor Richard Abramowitz to bring the film to theatres in the spring. And after a somewhat surprising (relief was more like it) inclusion on the Academy's Documentary Feature shortlist, the film finds itself smack in the middle of Best-of-the-Year conversations. It's nominated for the Documentary prize at the Film Independent Spirit Awards and it's up for 6 awards at next months Cinema Eye Honors, including Outstanding Feature and Outstanding Debut, not to mention the numerous film critics prizes its been garnering (yesterday, it was announced as the Best Documentary and Best First Feature on indieWIRE's annual critics poll).
Over the past month, we've had the opportunity to spend some time with the team behind EXIT - producer Jaimie D'Cruz and editor Chris King - including hosting the duo at a screening here in Los Angeles at Cinefamily earlier this month. In their presence, I witnessed numerous others trying to find out what Banksy thinks of this or that.
I had my own questions and Banksy and team were kind enough to get me his answers (via email, of course)...
All these wonderful things: One thing I've heard repeatedly from members of your team was that, early on, you were alone in your conviction that Thierry could and should be the narrative focus of the film - long before his show in LA that concludes the movie. What drew you to Thierry as a film character and, aside from the fact that he had a lot of archival material about street art at his fingertips, why did you think that he could sustain the film's narrative arc?
Banksy: Thierry’s entertainment potential wasn’t difficult to spot - he actually walks into doors and falls down stairs. It was like hanging out with Groucho Marx but with funnier facial hair. Thierry arrived at a point when my world was becoming infested with hipsters and heavy irony, so his exuberant man-child innocence was fun to be around. Maybe I convinced myself Thierry was a good subject just because I liked him. I’d be lying if I told you the first time I met him I thought ‘this man’s life will deliver a good narrative arc’.
From the outset there are problems with any movie about graffiti because all the good artists refuse to show their face on camera. I needed the film to be fronted by a personality the audience could engage with. The producer Robert Evans said that ‘vulnerability’ is the most important quality in a movie star and that’s a hard thing to portray if all your interviewees have masks over their faces.
ATWT: It's clear in the film that you rely on a team of people to create your artwork. What, if anything, was different about the filmmaking process, and the work you did with that team - Jaimie and Chris and others? And how did you know when you'd found the right collaborators?
B: I paint my own pictures but I get a lot of help building stuff and installing it. I have a great little team, but I tell you what - they all hate this fucking film. They don’t care if its effective, they feel very strongly that Mr Brainwash is undeserving of all the attention. Most street artists feel the same. This film has made me extremely unpopular in my community.