Gary: I made this film a couple of years ago called Helvetica, it was about graphic design and type. At the end of the process of making that film I kinda had some ideas about another… I wasn’t really intending to make another design documentary right after it., but I had some more questions about design and how it affects our lives and what designers do.
I made this other film and I also just started working on a third design-related documentary, so it’s kind of like a- it’ll be like a trilogy basically. So this is kinda like the Two Towers, or Godfather II, or Empire Strikes back… we’ll go with that…
Q: When you started this project, did you feel like you had a story to tell, or did you gather all of these interviews and question people and find out later you had a story in all the footage?
Gary: Yeah, I generally don’t start them- either this film or Helvetica- with any kind of story in mind. It’s really about the conversations that I have with the designers- the people in the film and then the “story” comes out from all those interviews… So, I don’t start out with a thesis and then [go out to] prove or disprove that thesis. It’s more like I’m interested in the subject matter and I try to put together a good group of people to talk about and then… We filmed 80 hours for this film, and we cut it down to 75 minutes, so when you think about it, 80 hours of conversations, when you lay them all out you start to see the similarities and the threads and the ways to connect them all into what is hopefully a watchable thing. So no, I don’t start out with anything like that, and I also don’t go in with prepared questions for these interviews because that’s the easiest way to kill a conversation is to have those prepared questions so I hope that they are that- they’re conversations and it’s hard because everyone is really busy and the designers… to get them to stop and talk about what they do creatively- its really hard. So, the interview questions just make it suddenly into an interview and I don’t want it to be an interview. I want it to be sort of a free form conversation.
Q: Your film was excellent, by the way, and I just wanted to ask how you went about really wanting to understand questions about design itself, even before Helvetica…
Gary: Its funny because I just want to watch those movies, I really just wanted to see a movie about fonts. Does that make me weird? (laughter) It’s just like, why isn’t there a movie about fonts? So I just wanted to watch that film and this film too, and it just wasn’t in my Netflix queue, you know? I mean, it just didn’t exist, so that’s generally your cue to do it yourself. It’s really that simple. I’m not a designer, I’m just fascinated by design, and I’m not even really a filmmaker- until Helvetica- so I’m just curious about this stuff, and it’s weird because Marc Newsom says in the film; That sort of anger and frustration about things that don’t exist, or things you want that don’t exist, that drives a lot of designers and that sort of drives me too. It’s why I’m fascinated with design; maybe I’m just a closet designer. Maybe I’d be happier just coming to SCAD, maybe it would cheaper than making the films
Q: First, thanks for coming to show us your movie… I wanted to say, did you try to educate yourself at all before you started these interviews, and how did you make sure the discussion were relevant to what you wanted to say about design and make sure you pulled the right things out of it?
Gary: Again, I didn’t really have a list of things that I wanted to “pull out.” It’s really about this group of people, and what they want to talk about, and what was on their minds. I spent about six months before I started filming talking to educators and design writers, curators, and designers just about first of all…who? What different people I should talk to? Then I was always just somebody who read design magazines and tries to keep up with stuff, but yeah, there was no… I really go into them very very open, and just like, “Let’s talk…” and you know… To get to sit down with Johnny Ives, and “Okay, what do you want to talk about,” …it’s really that simple. I like that process better than having a really rigid message or direction before you start the film- seems really counter intuitive to me. I really like to go in and then sort out what everyone is thinking about and talking about and try to thread those ideas together into something that hopefully makes sense.
Me: First of all, thanks so much for coming. Helvetica, it was really effective because there was a really effective modern/post-modern conflict. In this one, it seems there are so many different conflicts, like sustainability vs. indulgence, planned obsolescence vs. longevity, there were a lot of them… Did you ever have the temptation or the thought to take one and go deeper into it, or did you just want to hop around the different subjects and touch each one…?
Gary: Yeah, the subject matter is different. Helvetica is seemingly about a simple- one typeface, and then its really not because its not just one thing, it’s a communication system. So, it becomes about visual communication, and the people, and the work, and the creativity, and the ubiquitousness of it all, and that becomes the story. It sort of opens up behind this seemingly simple thing. With this film, and with industrial design or product design, it’s totally different. It’s about everything around us, so there’s no one…. I couldn’t just do a film about chairs… It wouldn’t have had enough depth or enough breadth like Helvetica because its not just one object, it’s not a whole system of communication. So I wanted to, I just felt like it made more sense to look at a bunch of different things, but really look at the thinking, and the strategy, and the process behind everything, what connects everything. What connects a toothbrush to a Toyota… It is the kind of reverse of Helvetica, it is about a sort of very focused subject matter. It’s about western consumer goods, and the people who design them, and us as western buyers of consumer goods. So, in that sense, I still think it is a simple focused film, and I think focus is overrated anyway.
Q: What’s the next film?
Gary: It would be cheating to tell you (disapproving murmur). You’ll have to wait a little bit…
Gary: Umm…. No. It’s not about fashion! I’ll say that much, and that’s all I’ll say.
Q: I’m not an industrial design student, I’m actually animation, and the themes appealed to me as very interesting. My question is… industrial design, as you demonstrate in this film, seems to be very preoccupied with the future and what it will be. But, no one ever knows what it will be, so I guess- When you look at each generation’s idea of the future is, it actually reveals more about the present then what the future will actually be… So what are the futuristic products that were creating today, seem to say about us? Based on your experience with these product designers…
A: This is where I usually have a designer with me so I can say…. “So… hard question….” I think its… even when designing for the future, I don’t know if it’s that…. It’s that sort of simple incremental improvement of things, it’s about that reexamining of things and always getting a bit better, and being hyper-aware of the world around them as designers. I like the idea of looking back at a culture, you know how archaeologists look back at a culture mostly through its art or its objects, you can learn a lot about an era or a people from the objects they left behind… So, that’s kind of one my ideas too about, like this film, what are people 200 or 300 years from now looking back at our little iPod screens and things, and what are they going to think about us? That’s a question that I have too, and I’m not sure if I answered your question at all. But yeah, I’m not sure there is one either…. I have faith in designers to make, or at least the forward thinking ones, to try and look forward and improve things. I think my biggest concern is, for every one designer that is forward thinking, and is thinking about things like sustainability and universal design, there are 99 other designers that aren’t thinking about those things and in the sense that us, as the users of all this stuff and the consumers of this stuff, were sort of the ones enabling bad and unsustainable design to continue because were not critical enough of it and we continue to buy things that aren’t made well or responsibly made.
Q: Can you talk a little about the process itself, the design of your film, because I noticed, its been a few years since I’ve seen Helvetica, but there’s a feel to them- the stylistic music… can you talk about the filmmaking process itself?
A: Documentary is a design, it’s very much a design, and I think I’m just learning how to do it after Helvetica and this one. This film felt like such an extension of some of the things that I was thinking about while making Helvetica so it made sense to do it along the same… to have the same sort of aesthetic or structural similarities. Which, is kinda how I conceived the third film- that I’m not going to talk about- and how it all kinda fit together. It’s a… Again, it’s a language to be able to do that with the images, and the thoughts, and the music, and the natural sound, and the pacing, and structure, and I’ve been lucky to work with people who are really good and know this stuff better than I do. Which is kinda the secret… just get really great people to work with you and then let their creativity… its really about communicating to, you know- My DP, my cinematographer, my editor, and everyone who worked with me on it, -communicating what I’m imagining and letting their creativity kind of take it from there. So being a director is sort of like being a project manager in a way, you’ve got a vision of what you want to see or basically what you want to do but you’re still using all these other amazing people’s talent to make that happen and of course they take it in different directions that you wouldn’t see. Yeah, I just feel like I’m totally in awe of documentary filmmakers, the ones who do well, because it’s so amazing to me, and pushes me to do better. Since I didn’t go to film school and I want to get better, so that’s why I just want to keep making films, since that’s the only way you get better at it.
Q: How intentional was the transition between Karim Rashid and IDEO, and maybe can you describe their differences…
Gary: The transition…?
Q: The little bit with Karim Rashid and IDEO… I like that it was a clear contrast between those two…
Gary: Oh, when he went in to talk with David Kelly, you mean… like Karim was saying things shouldn’t be disposable, and then David Kelly is saying things should last forever, or things should be disposable, is that what you’re talking about…?
Gary: Yeah, I have no idea. I think they’re the same point though. I think Karim is saying that what we know we’re going to throw away in a year or two, those should be made out of cardboard- and I want the cardboard cell phone… I don’t know how the cardboard iPhone would actually work- but yeah, the things we know we won’t use in two years should be made as disposably as possible, and then there are those other things like a good chair or desk that were a great desk 100 years ago and will be a great desk 100 years after I’m dead. It’s still going to work as a desk if its made well and I treat it well. So, I think those are the same point, the same kinda thing. Just take away the white suit and purple glasses and its pretty much the same kind of concept… (laughter)
Q: So you said you were really interested in design, so I’m wondering how much of your home is from IKEA, what is your aesthetic, and then- after speaking for 80 hours with the worlds most brilliant designers- have your consumer habits changed at all?
Gary: Okay, so first question- I’m actually homeless at the moment. (laughter) It just coincided with the timing of this tour, and me moving out of my house, and so I packed up everything and stuck it in my office which was kind of interesting after doing this film- just looking at all the things that I owned and trying to figure out what things I actually cared about or need. I don’t think I have any IKEA items. It’s mostly… I don’t have that much stuff. When I was moving out I was really looking at- the bulk of my stuff was media- it was books, records, and DVDs and especially with these DVDs, I was carrying these boxes down 3 flights of steps, and I was like, “Why? Why am I carrying … all of this stuff could fit on a tiny little hard drive. Why am I carrying around these plastic cases that I don’t need or care about?“ Which got me thinking about the DVD of this film, and I’m like “Eugghhh, do we really need another plastic thing out there for this movie?” The one thing I’ve kinda been struggling with… the stuff I’ve got is totally like, really just very vernacular, but old stuff. Like, 60s and 70s random steel cased chair… and I have one of those, like, lawyer bookshelves… the metal ones with the glass case that kind of slide up and in, and you can pick them up, lift up the lid, and they stack- so they’re really easy to move. And, you know, I have a Sony flat screen because I love to watch films. I have a nice TV and then yeah, a bed, and bunch of books. Pretty much it. …and an old guitar, and lots of photos. That pretty much sums up my- and turntables!
Did my consuming habits change? Totally. I think more about each purchase. I’m not anti-consumerism, but I’m definitely pro-considered-consumerism. I really put a lot more thought into everything I buy on those- both types of products- tech stuff that I know I’m going to get rid of soon, and the things that I know are not going to get obsolete, and I really want to buy for the rest of my life. Like, this table- I really want to commit to this table for the rest of my life.
Q: I have a two-part question- First, what were the documentaries growing up that you were inspired by, and how do you go about getting funding for your films such as grants or sponsorships…
Gary: I don’t think I was inspired by documentaries. I was more inspired by, like, David Lynch, which you can totally see in this… (laughter) I’m being serious…. [For the record, I can totally see it – Renn]
Um, I wasn’t the big film freak when I was growing up. Again, it was more like I could kind of see Helvetica in my head before I started it and I really wanted to watch it, and that’s what inspired me. I wasn’t really an ardent student of documentaries. There’s a lot of filmmakers I like- the Direct Cinema school of doc, like the Maysles Brothers, and Pennebaker, and people like that, but that didn’t really- I think what inspired me to start making documentaries, were the music documentaries that I was involved in, that I was making, and that I was helping produce. Like the Wilco documentary, [I Am Trying to Break Your Heart] which was the first thing I was involved with. (clap from back of theater) Did someone just clap…? Wow, cool. I produced a few other music docs, because my background is punk-rock record labels, and I was really into the music side of it, and I wanted to see those bands filmed.
The other question… The funding of these is completely independent- like, credit cards, and friends and family, selling t-shirts and posters on the websites- all those unglamorous things. My background is in DIY touring, and releasing records, so I never even thought about grants and stuff like that. It’s just too much time and too much work- there are much easier ways to raise money, if you have a good idea or something that people want to see. I think that- I dunno, you guys can tell me- I think the audience for these films wants to see them made as badly as I want to see them made. I am the audience for the films, so I would be lining up to see them too. Yeah, its… I try to not have too… If I were to go into a boardroom of investors and say, “I’m making a film about Helvetica,” I would have been laughed out of there in a minute. Those are things you just have to do, and not waste time trying to like apply for grants. In my opinion…
Q: You were talking about the DVD and you wanted to release it, it gave me an idea?
Gary: Oh yeah?
Q: What you should do is put out a DVD case that has three slots and say, “Throw your old one away, and just use this one for all three…”
A: Or we could just do a digital download of it (laughter). We still have to make the disc itself…
Q: Exactly, you still have to make the disc, so you have to have some kind of holder for the disc…
A: Yeah, I don’t know… I think this is the last year that you ever need to make the disc. After this year I don’t think you need to print the disc anymore…
Q: Well anyway, it was an idea…
Gary: It was a great idea, [No, it wasn’t. –Renn] thank you. I recently talked to Michael C. Place of “Build,” -he’s this graphic designer in London, he was in Helvetica- and he did the logo for Objectified and the poster… he found these really beautiful, tiny little USB jump drives- they’re white and they kind of swivel out and you just put half of it in the computer. I was just like, “Just print the Objectified logo really small on the drive, and just put the HD version of the film on the drive, and that’s it. You just use it, transfer the file over, and use the jump drive.” That was my other idea. Karim Rashid wanted to make a cornstarch bubble with a URL in the middle of it, that you just opened up, and then went there and downloaded it.
Q: You talked about your background in punk music, can you speak to that a little bit more? And tell us what your favorite interview was?
Gary: First, after I got kicked out of college the second time (laughter), because all of my friends were in bands, and I had a record label when I was in college, and I would just take off in the middle of the semester- this is a really bad example to be setting for you guys- I would just take off in the middle of the semester on like a two month national tour with a friend’s band, and help them book it, and all that. So after I got kicked out, I started working at a record label, just on more kind of independent releases with friends, promoting concerts and then started working at “SST” in Los Angeles, which is like Black flag’s label, Sonic Youth’s, Meat Puppets’- all these amazing band’s label. That became my education basically, releasing records and learning how to do distribution, and just that kind of idea of… There’s a great quote from Mike Watt of The Minutemen and he said – I’m going to totally butcher it here- it was, “We wanted to find where the wall was, by pushing up against it, not by having someone tell us where it stands.” And I thought that was such a great concept, there’s something you want to see. or do, or whatever… don’t wait for someone else’s permission, just make it happen for yourself. And that’s sort of driven the last 25 years of my life, just like projects, or movies, or companies, or events, or whatever that I wanted to see that no one seemed to be doing- that I just did them. Luckily, there’s other people who like or also want to see what I want to see, so I’ve been lucky with that. People think that punk is like a music style, but its not, it’s a philosophy, and this movie is totally punk rock. That’s, like, a tweetable quote right there- get on that. (laughter)
Most favorite interview…? I mean, Johnny Ive was probably for me- and getting to go to the Apple design lab- which I still cant believe they let me do that- it was really cool. The Bouroullec Brothers, are just fucking hilarious. What’s really hilarious about the two of them, what you don’t see, is between the laughing, and hanging out, and the smoking, is that they’d just be screaming at each other at the top of their lungs, just knock down, drag out– the worst fights you’d ever see, and then 15 minutes later they’d be back laughing and smoking, and then BOOM. They’d have these brawls, like three of them while we were there and we didn’t really know what to do. We’re in the room… with cameras… and I tried to use some of that in the movie but it just didn’t work… I like the fox and the porcupine dynamic better than “Fuck you” in French… it was really that intense, it was insane. They were all- I enjoyed doing them all. God it’s a great job.
Q: Your comments on having a narrator or a voice over, whether it be you or a celebrity…?
A: Yeah, I don’t want to see me in the movie, that’s like the last thing that I want to see. It’s not about me, its about the designers, so- I just like the films where you’ve got to kinda put things together a little bit as a viewer and that’s where I think focus is overrated- you kind of need to be a little out of focus, and have to figure things out. I like it when I as the viewer have to sort of put my own background, and experience, and knowledge level, or just mood that day into the film and sort of sort things out a little a bit, vs. being spoon-fed the information with a narrator making everything clear and making everything very straightforward. People have this idea of documentaries answering these questions, where, I think that would be a total failure if you watched a documentary and it answered all your questions about the subject matter. You should have more questions about the subject matter when you leave than when you came in. That’s what I’m interested in, is engaging that part of you and I don’t think that works for some reason if you have a narrator explaining exactly whats going on, or the path you should be taking. Show the path, not the destination, that’s something… that can be tweeted too (laughter).