This may be an embarrassing admission, but one of my favorite movies of all time is Men in Black: Will Smith at his most suave, Tommy Lee Jones at his most Tommyleejonesous, and a bunch of aliens way more fun than the previous Big Willie flick, Independence Day. Oh, and the really great opening titles with the camera following a bug on a dark road, set to a score by Danny Elfman and title credits by Pablo Ferro — sorry, I can only leave you with a blank screen and the music but no visuals. Since then and after seeing the opening titles for Dr. Strangelove, To Die For, L.A. Confidential and dozens of others I have been a devoted Pablo Ferro fan — gone as far as mimicking his handwritten approach for signing my holiday cards and for that one time that someone asked me to dedicate and sign a book. As I was doing some research on Ferro for our book, somewhere beyond page one in Google, I came across a blog titled Pablo Ferro: Making the Movie. “What?” I thought. As I scrolled through the blog I remember being as excited as the day I was opening my first Nintendo box. “Why would anyone do a movie about Pablo Ferro?”.
For the next couple of hours I obsessed about this blog and its content. Clicking on all images and videos while further Googling ensued. Once satisfied I arrived at the following conclusion: Director Richard Goldgewicht and Producer Jeremy Goldscheider of Kihou Productions are creating a movie, titled PABLO, that tells the story of Pablo Ferro through animation mixed with talking heads (featuring interviews with celebrities like Andy Garcia and Anjelica Huston), plus current day footage of his life, and it is narrated by Jeff Bridges — yes, “The Dude”. Wow. A movie about a film title designer who is not even that well known among designers — specially in comparison to industry heroes like Saul Bass, Kyle Cooper and Karin Fong — and is being produced in atypical fashion. I thought this required a combination of chutzpah with an unheard of obsession about Ferro. So I decided to inquire. I e-mailed Richard and Jeremy asking if they would be interested in doing an interview about their project, and a couple of hours later both gentlemen replied — I was secretly hoping for a Lloyd-like rep to bark back through e-mail saying that his clients were too busy to deal with a design blogger — and agreed. The interview is a little long for the attention span limit of blog reading, but of all the interviews I have done on Speak Up, this has been my favorite. Richard and Jeremy have offered us a peek into the creative process of producing a movie/documentary, about a subject dear to our hearts, revolving around one of the most astounding practitioners of our industry: PABLO.
PRINT VERSION: For those interested in taking this on the road. One of these days I’ll implement a print style sheet.
First trailer for PABLO.
ARMIN VIT: How did you first learn about Pablo Ferro, both his work and as a person?
RICHARD GOLDGEWICHT, DIRECTOR: I met Pablo in 2002 when I was invited to direct a segment for a pilot show on independent filmmaking produced by a filmmaker collective I was a member of, Filmmakers Alliance. The show never went to air, but the segment itself ended up being showcased in screenings at the Directors Guild of America and the Smithsonian Museum, in Washington.
The short experience interviewing Pablo and studying his work made me curious to know more about him. Pablo was very warm and welcoming, a bit of a peacock with his red scarf, yet ultimately humble if not even self-effacing. A man who was complex and sophisticated yet, on another level, “just your average guy”. I instinctively thought he would make for a compelling subject for a film, way beyond his associations with celebrity and illustrious filmmakers.
AV: Did you have an interest in film titles before?
RG: Yeah, doesn’t everybody? As a kid I certainly did. Even if the movie was meant for “grown ups”, the colors and abstractions of title sequences would speak to everybody… But if I break down the importance of film logos and titles, I’d compare it to the power of a first impression, meeting somebody for the first time, getting a gut reaction in regards to aesthetic and tone. In a marketplace of over saturated images and brands, it’s hard to underestimate the power of a Pablo Ferro working on your side, helping you brand your film — your visual identity.
“There’s no such thing as bad footage, just bad ideas” was one of Pablo’s guiding principles. — RG
AV: What was the process like in forming the idea for a bigger film? How did you approach Pablo about it?
RG: The concept for PABLO came rather slowly and it was a tentative process. We had no client, no budget, but an incredibly original subject matter in our hands and a big sense of responsibility for now also being a part of Pablo Ferro´s hall of fame.
I had made a handful of short films before with a relative quick turnaround from concept to execution. Being PABLO my first feature film and also being the film’s scope the broad scope of a man’s lifetime, I wanted to take my time in considering and reconsidering the best way to tell Pablo’s story. Everything was subject to revision and, in fact a couple of our interviewees such as Beau Bridges and Robert Downey Senior raised the big warning that we should never be able to fully “pinpoint the boy”. Pablo was described to us as an “optical illusion”, a leprechaun, an elusive Zelig-like character who meant many different things to so many different people. Along with the research, I also saw the bones of other documentary filmmakers who previously attempted to make a movie about him and graciously left some footage behind… So I knew it wasn’t an easy story to tell and I took my time in figuring out how to pay tribute to this incredible visual artist, what would be the right tone for the film, and more than anything form a cohesive opinion about him of my own.
Pablo himself was very generous in entrusting me with the job. He opened up his files, photographs, black and white helical scan video reels from the sixties — his private archives recorded with one of the first consumer video cameras, which depicted a lot of what went down in his legendary 2nd Avenue loft… and we slowly developed a trusting relationship and a dear friendship.
Rough cut of existing material from PABLO.
Footage of Pablo Ferro receiving a lifetime achievement award, with sample narration by Jeff Bridges.
AV: The film has taken on an unconventional approach, using animation to tell Pablo’s story, mixed with interviews (that have animations on top of them) and scenes from Pablo’s life today, creating a richly layered feel. How did you arrive at this?
RG: Well, “Who is Pablo Ferro?” was a confronting question that drove our research process. Pablo Ferro is an animator, a subversive ad man, a counter cultural icon of the sixties and one of the few renowned title designers in film history. But beyond his film career, he was also a family man, a Latin immigrant, a debaucherous pop-star, and more recently a living-legend, living in a garage…
I kept on sharpening my research to narrow what were Pablo Ferro’s specific contributions to visual media and arrived at several of his landmarks such as the pioneering use of quick cuts in American television within the mass media boom of the late fifties, the creation of the so-called “first trailer of contemporary times” with Dr. Strangelove revolutionary use of typography and non-story related approach and, of course the creation of the first multiple-frame sequence in cinema with 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair This three main landmarks had one thing in common: the editing room. Working primarily from the editing room, Pablo was sort of a filmic alchemist, who built upon the themes of his films, usually working from a variety of available footage that ended up in his hands. “There’s no such thing as bad footage, just bad ideas” was one of Pablo’s guiding principles, which lead me to understand him primarily as a montage artist, making the most of his available resources. The concept of Pablo Ferro, as the montage artist allowed me to develop a new way of telling the biopic story utilizing a gamut of different visual languages.
The narrative thread of the film was to be scripted and animated tracking his rise, fall and rise again from his Cuban childhood onwards, the documentary bits became the B-story — Pablo in present day — always re-informing the experience of the animated biopic, a couple of comical documentary windows, explaining in faux-text book language the importance of Pablo Ferro in the historical development of commercials, trailers and Hollywood films and a beautiful collection of celebrity interviews who helped layer the film with authenticity and prestige.
And one day, as dreams must come to an end, a hit man shows up and BANG!: shoots Pablo straight up, pointblank. — RG
AV: Did anyone at any point question the animation approach as being too cute or playful and perhaps taking away from the seriousness of Pablo’s work?
RG: Pablo Ferro’s sensibility has always been playful and provocative, many times even described as childlike. “An animated documentary about an animator” not only had a good ring to it but opened up the possibility of extrapolating “the bigger than life” stories we had been researching. As we sat down with about 40 of Pablo’s collaborators, we started compiling an incredible collection of anecdotes that Pablo never remembered or cared to tell us in the many occasions we interviewed him. The stories were amazing, but the facts never really checked out. I suppose it might have to do with the fact that it had all happened so long ago, or nobody could really remember what went down in the sixties, but Pablo stood out as a legend — the memory of Pablo was far stronger than the facts we could verify and his influence in the community of artist that surrounded him in New York City was long lasting and far more personable than any of his many professional achievements. We were told repeated times about “Pablo’s Loft” on 2nd Avenue, a place with secret passage ways, upside down Christmas trees and a barber chair on hydraulics that lifted you into the skies.
This never-never land became the main universe of the film with Pablo gravitating in its center. Pablo had a safe haven for New York artists, almost like Andy Warhol, but without the media savvy energy that surrounded “the factory”. Pablo’s Loft is defined in the movie as the epicenter of the sixties underground culture, where it all came from. And one day, as dreams must come to an end, a hit man shows up and BANG!: shoots Pablo straight up, pointblank. Pablo closes the metal door of the loft and half of the bullet splinters off, ricochets in three different walls and hits him in the neck. The loving-hippie, the ringleader, the good guy comes crushing down, and somehow, miraculously survives after a series of operations. When Pablo wakes up from the nightmare, he can’t at all explain what happened — it could have been a hit man sent to the wrong door, the drug-lab upstairs perhaps, or “just another New York story”… Now how is he to get over his paranoia? How does he get his groove back, wrap a red scarf around the wound and keep on swinging?
The story was just too interesting and cinematic for us to rely on the retelling by old faces talking about the good ol’ days in the sixties. They were fascinating head shots, but the film needed more visual flare to take us through Pablo Ferro’s colorful roller coaster. We knew that scripting and animating our researched head shots would immediately take the narrative into the realm of fantasy but, after all, the sixties were a time of magical revelations and Pablo Ferro could also easily be seen as a magical figure in his own right. Mixing documentary with animation or making a real-life fairy tale allowed us to get closer to the emotional truth of the story and a closer look at Pablo’s brilliance: half superhero, half underdog. (Like all of us, I suppose)
Character board, researching looks. Put together by JJ Walker.[Click image for bigger view in pop-up window]
Sample frame with Hal Ashby and Pablo Ferro in a Malibu Colony pool house.[Click image for bigger view in pop-up window]
Animation test, with JJ Walker. [Work in Progress]
AV: How has your collaboration been with animation director JJ Walker, who is in charge of this aspect of the film?
RG: So far we only spent two months working together, developing the look of the film. The production schedule gives us another ten months to animate the entire picture with the support of a crew of about a dozen animators. JJ was chosen after about a full year of research and meetings with animators from different corners of the world. He’s very committed to delivering an original look for the film, which is to be at the same time familiar and modern. We’re mixing 3D technology to build the environments yet utilizing 2D planes, inspired in the old UPA/Mr. Magoo designs, creating a hybrid look to resample the sixties animation style for today’s audiences, also layering the frame with photographic images and hyper-realistic visual effects. I wanted to expand on the concept of montage or collage art, while preserving the sophistication and cinematic value of 3D camera moves that takes us through a voyeuristic ride in Pablo’s dreamscape.
AV: When I saw the trailer one of my biggest surprises was that people like Andy Garcia and Anjelica Huston knew of Pablo… Was this a similar reaction in your case? Who has surprised you the most with their accounts of Pablo?
RG: Pablo’s life journey crisscrosses the worlds of comics, animation, advertising, motion design and cinema`and rock ‘n’ roll. The plot of the movie profiles animated renditions of Stan Lee, Peter Sellers, Mick Jagger, Stanley Kubrick, Hal Ashby and a few other notables. Pablo was around so many different personalities that at times his life resembles the plot of Forrest Gump!
With Pablo Ferro we were always confronted with a bunch of oxymorons: Pablo is an underground artist, yet he’s a commercial artist, he is a Cuban with a hardly intelligible Latin accent, yet he’s the darling of Madison Avenue in the height of the cold war. He is a title designer, yet he is dyslexic and can’t spell! — RG
AV: The film is narrated by Jeff Bridges, whose voice and verbal cadence is impossible to confuse with anyone else. How did you approach him, and what was his reaction to this invitation? Can you picture anyone else narrating this?
RG: Jeff is a big fan and a good friend of Pablo’s. He’s been very generous with his time and a great supporter of the film’s direction. The role of the narrator on PABLO is far beyond of a conventional documentary voice track. Jeff Bridges’ narrator is quite opinionated and functions as a sardonic teacher who passes on “The Dao of Pablo Ferro” and the leanings of the sixties to a modern day audience. So Jeff took on his script, asked a couple of questions and totally got behind the vision of the film. An amazing treat!
AV: How has your vision of the movie changed or evolved since you started? Any compromises? Unexpected surprises?
RG: No compromises so far! The more we went on researching the subject, the bigger the film grew. It was originally meant as a smaller character study doc, but Pablo’s story kept challenging us away from simple understanding and offering bigger questionings as to the price and measure of a man’s success. How can a living legend be living in a garage? What went wrong? Does the garage necessarily mean something went wrong?
In one hand we have an original artist who took the American dream on his own terms, yet mostly worked within a commercial environment, worked “for the man.” With Pablo Ferro we were always confronted with a bunch of oxymorons: Pablo is an underground artist, yet he’s a commercial artist, he is a Cuban with a hardly intelligible Latin accent, yet he’s the darling of Madison Avenue in the height of the cold war. He is a title designer, yet he is dyslexic and can’t spell! I suppose, Pablo himself was the biggest surprise and the movie slowly shaped itself into a fish out of water comedy with a “by the way, this guy actually exists” reality-kick!
AV: What are your expectations for the movie? What do you hope people get out of it?
RG: The way Pablo lives his life — or the “Pablo Ferro state of mind “, has a certain sense of ease that I find very valuable and inspiring within the goal-driven consciousness of our times. He takes it easy, rides his highs and rides his lows, always with a flowing red scarf and a hint of magic. I can’t wait to be in that film premiere with the entire cast on red scarves!
ARMIN VIT: You’ve been working with Richard for the past five years, how has this collaboration evolved over time?
JEREMY GOLDSCHEIDER, PRODUCER: The relationship has evolved from a friendship to a true creative partnership —and organically as PABLO developed from a traditional documentary about a “famous unknown” to a scripted animated non-traditional narrative film that is punctuated with documentary scenes.
Selling the idea of a hybrid film that tells the story of a “forgotten soldier” through animation and documentary is as big of a hurdle that I could ever recommend to anybody, especially in a town of blockbusters, sequels, and movie vehicles. — JG
AV: What interested you about producing this movie on Pablo?
JG: PABLO is my first feature film and it seemed appropriate and exciting to make a film about a man who had a life filled with innovation, artistic expression, great friends, and a significant body of work. Pablo Ferro is a man who had monumental collaborations with filmmakers, musicians, writers, Madison Avenue ad men, studio heads, and his family — and I thought that was an interesting life to explore. I knew inherently that there was much to be learned if I were to immerse myself in Pablo’s world. Being able to approach a film that was not based on a book, film, or screenplay was exciting. The film came with the idea of endless possibilities.
AV: What have been some of the biggest hurdles in moving this film forward?
JG: Living in Los Angeles and selling the idea of a hybrid film that tells the story of a “forgotten soldier” through animation and documentary is as big of a hurdle that I could ever recommend to anybody, especially in a town of blockbusters, sequels, and movie vehicles. In addition to starting with an unknown subject, we also set out to bend the genre into a sophisticated visual ride of a film with a new multi-media language — yes, I might be an expert on hurdles after we finish this one.
AV: Have you had any reactions from others in the industry about this film? As in “A film about a film title designer? Are you nuts?”.
JG: Yes we’ve heard that a few times but have also heard encouraging words as well. “This is the most interesting thing to come across my desk in a long time” is something that we continue to hear. But whatever side the industry looks at PABLO from, I do know that it takes a real visionary to appreciate it beyond the lip service. It was legendary Producer, Norman Lear who “got it” and stepped up. He was intrigued that we were making a film about “this corner of creativity” and he initiated the production with the first financial investment in the film.
Pablo Ferro with Jeremy Goldscheider and Richard Goldgewicht.
AV: Tell us a little bit about the process of getting this movie in particular unto theaters, festivals, DVD, or if it’s too early for that, about getting a distributor… Has it been harder or easier than you expected?
JG: This has been a difficult climb — harder than we expected. An unconventional film will naturally take an unconventional route to distribution; theater, DVD, TV, etc. For example, we are now developing a merchandising arm for the film with a Madison Avenue branding firm that will help us create the PABLO brand via coffee table books, gallery shows, and the proliferation of Pablo’s signature red scarf. This will ultimately increase the value for buyers.
We have fielded a variety of inquiries from buyers & distributors (Hotdocs, IFP, etc.) and we will be speaking with a new group of Latin America buyers in March when we showcase PABLO at “Encuentros” at The Miami Film Festival. But we have consistently chosen to hold off on parceling out the film’s rights until we have a cut of the film that showcases the true value of the property (unless we get a significant one-stop offer). We are still seeking an independent financier to fund the film or a production company to front the funds or an animation studio to invest their resources to animate the film. Going this route ensures control and the ability to sell the film at a premium — ideal for the filmmakers and investors.
PABLO logo explorations. [Work in Progress].
AV: So… Who’s designing the film titles for your movie?
JG: The next Pablo Ferro, of course! (With a little help and the magic touch of Pablo Ferro himself!)