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Interview: Mike Correll on ‘I Like to Paint Monsters’

chetzar_flatI Like to Paint Monsters is an amazing documentary and easily one of the best films of 2015. The film is an incredible study of the life and work of Chet Zar, and we are proud to have had the opportunity to speak with filmmaker Mike Correll about his amazing and touching documentary. The film is now available on DVD, VOD & iTunes from First Run Features. Check out our review of I Like to Paint Monsters HERE and read our interview below to find out just what it took to make this fantastic work of art a reality.

Enter the dark and foreboding world of Chet Zar, where apocalyptic industrial landscapes are inhabited by disturbing yet beautiful monstrosities. Sometimes gruesome, occasionally funny, but always thought-provoking, Zar’s art is as enigmatic as it is frightening. But who is Chet Zar, and why does he like to paint monsters? These are the questions at the heart of this new documentary by Mike Correll.

Zar is an influential figure in the Dark Art Movement. Born in 1967 in San Pedro, California, Zar was the family prankster. With a passion for horror films, an innate urge to create bizarre artwork, and a superhuman work ethic, Zar seemed to be made for the special effects industry.

During his time in the film industry, he designed and created creatures and make-up effects for such films as Darkman, The Ring, Hellboy I & II, and Planet of the Apes. Even more well-known is his work with the band Tool. But despite his success, Zar became disenchanted by the artistic compromises he had to make, and, with the support of author Clive Barker, Zar decided to pursue his passion for monsters by painting them.

Chet Zar: I Like to Paint Monsters is an opportunity to take a journey into the mind and life of Zar. Delve into his experiences in the film industry, his transition from early special effects into the world of computer animation, and, ultimately, his evolution into the distinctive artist he is today.

CHUD: So to get started, how did the idea of I Like to Paint Monsters come about?

Mike Correll: Well, there’s a very specific story to how it came about. When I first got onto Facebook in 2010, I’d been kind of a technophobe and had been avoiding dealing with any kind of social media. My wife had been leaning on me pretty hard, she was like, “Y’know you gotta get out there and see what’s going on and get your work out in the world.” Ultimately I stumbled upon an old high-school friend who had a profile pic which was the painting Pipe Dream by Chet Zar and I was just absolutely blown away. It was as if I was looking at something I had seen in my own head that some random person that I didn’t even know had brought forth into the world.

And so I just kind of disappeared down the Dark Art rabbit-hole trying to chase this Chet Zar person, and really immersed myself in his work, I was y’know just kind of enamored with his work. It just felt so kindred and it felt so much like something that been taken straight from my own head, and i didn’t know that anybody else had seen the things I had seen or gone the places I’d gone. So fast forward two years to 2012 and Chet was coming to New Mexico to do the Paradise Artist Retreat and he was gonna be teaching several different classes; a sculpting class, a photoshop class and then also a painting class, and he offered to get me a pass to come in.

We didn’t really know each other, I had just kind of queried him on Facebook, and I went and I met him in person and the very next night I went home and I had this incredible “dream.” It was more than just dreaming, it was somehow visionary or prophetic, and in this dream I was making the documentary about Chet Zar. And so I woke up the next day and I thought I have really ultimately nothing to lose by just pitching this to him, so sat down and and typed him a personal message and said, “Hey, I don’t know if anyone’s ever approached you about a documentary about your life and work, but I would be honored to make said documentary.” And he was very interested and that kind of forced the relationship that led into the actual preparatory for the Kickstarter and then making the money in acquisition and filming and so on.

CHUD: You have experience writing and directing commercials and short films. Did you have much of a history with the art world and making documentaries?

Mike Correll: I definitely had experience working on documentaries, but I did not have any experience really in the fine art world. I had certainly never tried to put any of my own artwork, my own fine art in the fine art world. I kinda made a decision in college that rather than go the fine art way, I was gonna go the film way. I didn’t know a lot about the fine art world so it was very much a kind of exploratory process for me to discover the ins and outs of how that world functions, and how Chet fits into that world and to be able to put that piece of the puzzle into the greater picture that I was trying to develop as I was producing the documentary.

In regards to documentaries, I actually won Best Feature Documentary at the Projections Film Festival in 2002, so that was a long time ago and that was for a documentary called The Many Faces of Homelessness. That was a college piece, I graduated from college in 2002 and I did my senior thesis on this particular feature documentary and put in a local festival. So I did have some material that when Chet and I began discussing the potentiality of us coming together and ultimately collaborating on thee documentary about him, little bits and pieces of things that I could throw up onto YouTube and say, “Hey, take a look at this. This is an excerpt from The Many Faces of Homelessness.”

That year I also won Best Animation for a piece that was originally called Introduction to Alternate Reality that ultimately now you can find on YouTube called Labyrinth of Penumbra. So I was able to throw him some stuff that I’d done, but in the ensuing period of time between 2002 and 2012 I had not actually engaged in any video production per se. I mean, I had done little bits like I said. I’d done some television commercials and some music videos and a variety of different little things, but ultimately I decided to take that ten years and focus on my body of work, my writing. So I wrote two screenplays and three novels and I’m just sitting on all that.

CHUD: The length of time it took to make I Like to Paint Monsters seemed like a while and you had to get a ton of people together for interviews and input.

Mike Correll: It was I think, like anything when you walk into anything when you don’t really know what’s going to happen and you’re just hoping that you can either acquire or maintain your current skill set in order to move through it efficiently and effectively. So, it was definitely a discovery process. I didn’t know how to organize all of it; I didn’t know necessarily what I would need to do and how I would need to do it in order to achieve it and it did take a long time.

Y’know I prepared that first Kickstarter starting March of 2012 and then we launched it September of 2012, got the money October of 2012, got the equipment and then started shooting January 2013. And we didn’t finish shooting literally pick-up shots until December 2014, so the production was in fact two years. A big part of that resulted from Ego Death, which was the show that he came upon in the midst of us making this documentary.

He was going to do this incredible huge show that was ultimately the biggest thing he’d ever done. So the documentary at that point and time kind of unfolded into a much larger piece. I realized there was a lot of story that was going to unfold, and that’s kinda the beauty of documentaries that the script is written by life. There’s nobody writing it, so people react to different events that occur in their lives and that affects them and in turn their work and the ultimate documentary.

From when I began the process in 2012 I was working as a manager in the casino industry and I was a full-time, 24-7, 365 day, on-call manager. So I ultimately was juggling a full-time job while also making this documentary and I didn’t leave that job until May of 2014. For over half of the time that we were working on the production, I was also working as a full-time manager.

I had 10 hours worth of commuting a week, so it was an incredible task to take on. I’m know for doing these kinds of things to myself (laughs) and ultimately I think all my managerial skills that I had from working in the casino industry for 14 years really lent themselves to my ultimate ability to be able to handle all of the deadlines and timelines and meetings and numerous people involved.

I kind of had this skill set that I had been developing in order to make my money while on the backside I was doing all my writing. Dealing with a crew of people, however splinter cell they may be working and however despaired it may be, it’s not a lot different from going into a job where you have 30 people underneath you and you ultimately need them to all unite towards a common goal.

CHUD: Your film is way more than just an exploration of Chet Zar’s body of work. How was it when the themes family and spirituality started coming up?

Mike Correll: Chet and I have so much in common that when we started developing the documentary, we held this in common that, “It’s all about the art.” It’s all about making the right piece of art and then we have to serve that. We have to make compromises and we have to make the right decisions for this art so it doesn’t become about a person or an idea, it becomes about this living organism that you’re building and feeding, which is this documentary. It’s very alive.

We both have very deep spirituality threads and roots, and so we both share a lot of experiences with parallel dimensions. I guess that’s one way to describe it; a poor way to describe it, but I think most people understand that, the notion of multi-verse. So, we both I think, knew from the beginning that there were going to be aspects of that. I was probing it as a fan. I was this person who was like, “This guy’s amazing. I need to know more about him because I feel I relate so much on such a deep and visceral level.”

And so I always knew I was going to dig into things like, “What does the number 5 mean.” for instance. “What created this being? Who are these beings that existed before him that came together and allowed this child to become this Dark Art Master? How did that occur?” y’know. It was kind of that process of ‘cat and mouse’ where you sit down with Chet for a 3 1/2, you go back to your hotel room and then you transcribe. You start thinking, “What directions can I follow now? What other little holes are there to go down? I need to find out more about this topic or that topic and I need to get interviews lined up with people to fill in these gaps as independent corroborators of this experience that he’s telling me.”

It’s journalistic in the sense that you’re trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle as accurately as you can. I think that just the fact that we’re both very spiritually attuned people in our own right, or at least that we’re seekers; those kind of aspects I expected them to come up. I was looking at this guy and his work and I just knew there had to be these deep things that caused this. The biggest thing that came out that was a surprise, was ultimately what happened with him as a child and the kind of trauma that he went through, and how he was able to do a type of alchemy with that and channel it into a level of productivity that’s kind of peerless.

That was a harsh story to flush out. You’ve got all these different people; one person doesn’t want to say too much because they don’t want to offend someone else who’s going to be involved. And then that person, you go talk to them and then they’re not sure because of the other person. So you’re kind of playing this game, but at certain key moments it would synergize and we would reach these points where all of the sudden the third person in this little triangle tells all. Then the other two people are like, “Oh, they’re cool with telling all?” and then you go back to shooting them again.

You’re always kind of massaging it along in production to get what you want, and then ultimately when you get to that distillation process of post-production, that’s when you really start to try to make sense out of all of it and to try to get the strongest chords in there to add dimensionality to this piece of art and this person. It’s a tricky balance. I can’t say there’s a rule book. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s frustrating, it’s just an incredible process.

CHUD: Are there any final words you’d like to say?

Mike Correll: I think Chet said it best, “Dark Art honors suffering.” I think that’s probably one of the most important things that anybody can get.