CR Sunday Interview: Josh Melrod posted September 16, 2012
Josh Melrod is the co-director of Cartoon College, the long-anticipated documentary about the Center For Cartoon Studies. As Melrod mentions below, that film is currently in the festivals-phase of its long roll-out, which will culminate in a DVD-type release I think next year. The film was screened for current students and other members of the CCS community around that school's graduation period this Spring. It was screened last night at the Small Press Expo. Melrod and co-director Tara Wray are I believe looking for opportunities to screen that film at some comics shows over the next year or so, and can likely arrange to either be there themselves or have someone involved with the film, perhaps as a subject, there on hand to introduce and/or take questions. My hope is that this interview may eventually lead to someone reaching out to the co-directors that way. I greatly appreciate Melrod's time. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: We're talking in August... where are you in terms of getting the film out there in front of audiences? Are you in the festivals stage of it, is that a fair description?
JOSH MELROD: Yeah, we're on the festivals circuit. We're also actively trying to put screenings together, at the grassroots level. We're talking to a couple of alternative/indy distributors, who specialize in the new model of distribution. I don't know how interesting this is for you. But basically the idea is rather than trying to get a small movie like this into a dozen theaters across the country where it will play for a few days and make no money and spend like a bunch on advertising, you instead try to make the screenings one-off screenings that are like events, where we show up as the filmmakers, or we send James [Sturm]. Depending on where it is in the country, maybe we get some of the students who have left the school and are now spread out to attend. So we have a ton of screenings lined up for the Fall, a lot of festivals and a bunch at -- we have one at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We're trying to put one together at RISD, places like that. And there are different arts-related festivals, that don't have to do with film, necessarily, that caught wind of the film.
We put this request a screening thing on our web site, and I was like, "There's no way this is going to work." But another filmmaker told me it was a good idea. I put it up on the web site as basically a form, and people from all over have written and said, "We have this event that we run, and we think it would be great to show the movie." We're lining up as many of those as we can. Then in the winter, we'll release the DVD and the movie will become available on iTunes and Hulu and Netflix and that will all basically happen on one day. On that one day, the movie will be out in the public. After that, I presume we won't have as many screenings.
SPURGEON: It struck me that I have the opportunity to speak to a filmmaker, and my first question is a really blunt business question. [Melrod laughs] Something that comes out in the movie a lot, and something that comics people discuss, is the economy of creative arts. There is always an element of managing one's career. Are you comfortable with that part of it, does that come naturally to you to arrange screenings and this kind of thing?
MELROD: No! [Spurgeon laughs] I originally thought that... I'm 34 now, but when I was in my early 20s I thought that whatever I did I would be recognized for my genius and then someone would take over for there and all I would do is the creative work. I saw in the students at the school a lot of that same thinking.
SPURGEON: You have a section in the film where you talk to a bunch of them in a row on just that topic. And they're mostly like, "Well, I'll get an agent, and then the agent will do the agent-stuff... I'll be recognized at this point..."
MELROD: Right. They'll be the "next greatest thing ever," Casey says.
It's not something that comes naturally to me. But I also find that I enjoy it. It sort of makes it feel like all of the work we did, it legitimizes it, and it sort of makes me feel like that the public has an interest in what we've done. Even if it's a very small percentage of the public. And it makes me feel more grown-up, for lack of a better term. It's business. Even though I never thought I would be much of a business person, there's something to be said for it. So it makes me feel like I'm learning something about the business, I guess. That I like.
SPURGEON: Now were you a film student?
SPURGEON: I asked because I wondered if looking at students in this school setting, watching them learn their craft that way, had any relation to how you picked up filmmaking. Maybe it was different than your own experience?
MELROD: I related to a lot of what the students were going through in the sense that some of the things they were experiencing we were experiencing ourselves. There's so much commonality, I realized. That was the thing I came away with the most. Regardless of the discipline, people who are really putting their energy and effort into something full-time face the same kind of challenges.
What was really interesting to me is that people like James [Sturm] or Chris Ware, these are people that are the top of their game. Every other cartoonist that we interviewed held Chris Ware up as the best living example of a cartoonist. I talked to him, and he has no more confidence than anybody else. He's still doubting that he's going to be able to finish the project he's working on, and sort of slogging through it. I took so much comfort from that. Tara and I were wondering if we were going to be able to finish this movie, if it was going to resolve itself. If we were going to have a story. I thought that was really interesting and also it made me feel like we weren't alone.
SPURGEON: You got a very eloquent statement out of James when he talked about maybe not getting everything he wants to do done, and having the time to make certain transitions at the point in his career where he is. I thought that was a through-line for your film, to deal with the reality of making art. It's very different from one's expectations for making art. Whether that's the older gentleman who hoped to become a better drawer, more facile in his craft, and that not really working out for him, or the direction Jen [Vaughn]'s odyssey takes at the end, it seems to recur. What the students were experiencing was kind of reflected in what James said, and I thought that kind of a sobering message. Is that something that came out of the material for you?
MELROD: That is something that came out of the material. Partly due to our filmmaking inexperience, we didn't come in with any sort of script for how we wanted the movie the go, or what the core issues of the movie were going to be -- outside of it being a portrait of cartoonists. Those were all things that came about -- the fact that they became themes is a reflection of how difficult this craft is for people, and creative work in general. With James -- everyone has their insecurities and things they struggle with internally. When James sets his mind to start a project, he has all the confidence in the world that he's going to be able to do it. He has so many ideas that he laments when he starts something that there are three things he'd like to be doing that he can't do. I thought that was interesting about James. The students at the school revere him. He knows that he's not Chris Ware, and it irks him a little bit. He's put his life into cartooning and he wants to be the best at it. He realizes that there are people better than him and I guess partially that's the point of his life that he's at, that we caught him at, where he's sort of realizing that, "Maybe I'm never going to be the best; maybe my goal of being the greatest isn't going to come to fruition." We caught a lot of that. We have a lot of footage of James coming to terms with his own limitations.
SPURGEON: Let me ask about that, then. How much material was there that you winnowed down to what you got? You have multiple storylines in there. You have three students: Jen and Blair and the older gentleman whose name I can never remember --
SPURGEON: Al, thank you. They all have nice little storylines to them, beginning and middle and end, with an ending that's a surprise ending in the majority of cases. That I imagine came out of a bunch of material. What was the process of looking at the material like, looking at everything you had and saying, "Okay, here's what we pull out." Was there anything you tried to get out of there that didn't work?
MELROD: I should start by saying that we were living in New York and we moved up. Tara had just finished her first film and was looking for another film to do. We read about the school. She said, "How would you like to go up to Vermont for a year?" We thought we would be here for a year, and that it would be a year in the life of the school. And we would move back to New York and that would be that. We're still here. [Spurgeon laughs]
We shot the 2007-2008 school year and into the summer. We put a cut together -- a full cut of the movie. That centered on Al and Blair and two other students. It wasn't polished, but it was a complete movie. We just weren't happy with it. We wanted it so bad for it to be good and have some sort of substance to it. It just didn't work. It ended with Al leaving and Blair failing at his thesis, which now comes at the beginning of the movie -- twenty-five minutes into the movie. And then with these other two students, their storyline was that they passed. There was no real climax to the movie. That movie ended on a sad note. At that point we probably had 100 hours of footage. When we finished that cut, we took a couple of months to decide what to do. We could have decided, "All right. Here's the movie, and we're putting it out there." It would have been what it was, and some people would have seen it. We also could have shelved it and moved onto something else. But we realized at that point that we had put a couple of years of our lives into it.
So we got the camera back out and we went back to James and Michelle Ollie -- the president of the school -- and said, "We want to come back and start filming again.” And so that’s what we did. So we shot for another year and a half and just coincidentally Blair and Al returned. That was just dumb luck. And we met a number of other students; Jen is the only one whose storyline... there were other storylines, but Jen's is the only one that made it into the movie. So when all was said and done we probably had close to 300 hours of footage. We winnowed that down to a 77-minute movie.
SPURGEON: When you were filming Jen... I think it’s pretty clear she works on film really well. She’s really appealing.
MELROD: Yeah, I think so, too.
SPURGEON: Was that obvious right away when you were filming? Was there a point early on where you knew she might be pretty good?
MELROD: There were a number of things about Jen that were great right from the start, from the moment we met her. The first was that she was obviously the sort of "representative" of her class. She was the most vocal person in her class, she was always... she’s an excellent networker, she was the sort of the hub of her class. The whole school. She was the person that we knew that she had to be in the movie. She had so much weight in the school that she had to be a part of it.
The second thing is that she wanted to be involved, because she’s involved in everything. [Spurgeon laughs] She really was. We wouldn't talk to anyone else that didn’t have something to do with Jen. Every student we followed or interviewed, some part of their lives... it was like all road lead to Jen. That was really important. And she really wanted to be in the movie, so that was great.
We did the first interview, and she was great. That was apparent. I remember we got back in the car, we interviewed her at the library. It was actually supposed to be a preliminary interview where it's supposed to make people comfortable with the camera. It's the interview where she's wearing the rainbow-colored sweater that appears throughout the movie. We ended up using a ton of that. We got in the car and we said, "Okay, she's a character. She's going to be in the movie." We knew from the very beginning.
The thing that was interesting about Jen is that when it came time for the thesis review, we had all this footage of her -- just hours and hours and hours of footage of Jen and we thought, "She doesn't have much of a story, though." She's a very important person at the school, and she's going to make it through, and graduate, she'll be the valedictorian or whatever, but that's not much of an arc. So when she came out of her thesis review having not passed, that was a complete shock to us. We never realized up until that point how overextended she had become. I had just assumed that all of these things she was doing, all of these things, all of this freelance -- she had a couple of jobs, she was the librarian at the school, and she was already planning for what she was going to do when she graduated. All of these things. I had assumed she was doing every one of them perfectly. And so when she had come out having failed, I almost wanted to put the camera down. Then I remembered, "Oh wait, I'm making a movie. We're supposed to be making a movie, so we have to keep rolling." And I thought that while this was cruel, it was actually good for the movie.
SPURGEON: It sort of reminded me of that moment in Hoop Dreams when the unexpected ballplayer's team makes a playoff run -- less dramatic, but that you process it in terms of it being this a lucky break for the film. "That's so good for this movie." Then you feel bad because it's not a great moment for her. It also reinforces a lot of your themes.
MELROD: Yeah, it did. The other thing that also became... well, it wasn't guaranteed she would ever finish. That was something she was actually nervous about. She was nervous about the process of handing in her thesis addendum, because she was doing so many other things. It took her so much longer than she had initially thought. She thought she would finish her thesis addendum in six weeks and it literally took over a year. She was sort of hoping that the movie would just end and we would have a title card that said, "Jen passed her thesis." She at that point, she wanted to be done with it. We kept pushing her and saying, "Jen, we're not finishing the movie until we've resolved her storyline. You at least have to turn in your thesis addendum." We really pushed her on that. We were relieved when we got her happy ending.
SPURGEON: There's a maxim in comics and I imagine filmmaking about showing and not telling. There's a real danger in what you do, even though you have the comics themselves as visuals, of descending into talking-heads land. I thought that was something you guys did well with Al's storyline, where you had several moments where you showed his isolation, his different physical relationship to everyone when walking around town, even. I thought you showed that part of his story. Was that a worry of yours, that your film stay visually appealing?
MELROD: Absolutely. That was a really big concern. As I've now started to work with people on other movies and started to know documentary filmmaking better, I realize this is something that's a common problem. It's going to be a talking heads movie. As it is, we did our best to mask how many talking heads we had. We'd say, "We have to put a scene between this string of five people talking." So we were extremely conscious of it.
One thing I've heard people say over and over and over again before they start editing their documentaries is, "We really want it to be like a narrative film, where the audience doesn't even realize they're watching a documentary. It just feels like a movie." It's something I may have said at one point, too. And now it's something I'll never say because it's such a ridiculous thing to say when the filmmaker has 100 hours of interviews [Spurgeon laughs] and 60 hours of verité footage. It's going to be what it is. [laughter]
We were very happy that we had... we were happy that we captured certain moments. The scene where Jen and Sam and Jason are preparing for MoCCA, that was great. That was very obviously a scene. It had this tension and it sort of built up, and there is inherent drama... it's like two minutes in the movie, but it's something where I could say, "That's a scene."
If I had to make the movie over again, I would embed myself in the lives of the students. We were learning as we were going. We got a ton of interviews, and we hung out at the school a lot. We followed the students home. But the ratio of that to interview footage is maybe 60 percent interviews and 40 percent verité. And I would definitely try to do it the other way. That was just... going forward, I will remember that. It was definitely something we were worried about, honestly.
SPURGEON: It's mostly a positive film, and I was wondering that going in because of a relationship you might have had with James and the school itself and being around the students. Were you worried about losing perspective, not maintaining a sharper edge and being open to critical viewpoints?
MELROD: Yeah. Not a worry... it was something we thought about. We met James in New York in 2006. At MoCCA, actually. We set up a time to come and see him, and we pitched him this idea of making a movie. And we ended up spending a few hours just shooting the shit with him. We really liked him. Before we'd even started shooting the movie, we were sort of friendly. And we said, "This could be problematic." But... it became obvious with James that he says what he thinks, and he was incredibly open when we were filming.
That first version of the movie, the first rough-cut, the school came off horribly. [Spurgeon laughs] The students we shot were unhappy, two of them failed, it didn't look good for them. We showed James, and he didn't mind. He thought it was an accurate representation of what that year had been like. It was that one year... it was representative of the students we followed. It was more harsh that it would have been if we had followed Joe Lambert, who is one of the school's big successes. He was in that class, but he didn't want to be on camera very much, so we didn't get that much with him.
I think that we decided at some point that we were going to, we weren't going to spare anybody's feelings because we liked them. All of the people we shot, we liked. So we didn’t want them to be... we didn't want to embarrass them or anything. At the same time, some of them in that scene we discussed before where they're talking about their plans for their futures, we'd just previously seen the most decorated and one of the most famous cartoonists in the world talking about how impossible it is to make a living, they look naïve. We thought that was important it was in the moving. We weren't trying to make them look cool.
SPURGEON: Naive, misplaced egotism is always hilarious. [laughter]
MELROD: Right. We were trying to be honest and I think that we did a good job. There were a few people where we cut some things where there were things that they said we thought were very funny. But would have been almost cruel to put in. We took those things out. We didn't sacrifice truth to spare somebody’s feelings.
SPURGEON: I tweeted that I'd seen the movie, and I immediately got e-mail from a couple of people at least reasonably close to the film's subject matter that wondered what I thought about it. They were really curious about what someone who wasn't there thought of the movie. I wondered if you're now hearing back from people -- review copies out, the screenings and the festivals... what are you hearing? Is anything surprising you in terms of how people react to the film?
MELROD: We did a screening at CCS on graduation weekend. Only open to the students and their families and the faculty. Only a couple of people from the movie were there. So the major players in the movie haven't seen it yet. Except for James. As far as I know, Jen hasn’t seen it, and Al hasn't seen it, and those are the people I’m most worried about. The response we’ve received from James and Steve Bissette and Ryland -- he's the one that opens the movie -- it's been so overwhelmingly positive that I'm not so worried about it anymore.
Blair is one of the programmers for the Salt Lake City Film Festival and he requested a copy. So he presumably has seen it. I wonder what he'll think.
SPURGEON: Are you getting any word back from those outside of the comics realm? Do you have any idea of that yet? I had to tell people that asked me if they were looking to me for an outsider's opinion, I'm not that far outside. Have any of your fellow filmmakers responded?
MELROD: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I think Tara and I both, when we get positive feedback, we don't believe it.
SPURGEON: That's the comics influence, your feelings. You won't believe anything positive now.
MELROD: The feedback that we've gotten that we like the most, is that people that don't know much about comics can relate to it. It seems the everybody has some sort of creative outlet. Most people do. And so I think that people can relate to the complexities and struggles of doing creative work. I like that a lot. I like that that comes through. It's not just inside comics. That people that don't know that world already don't say, "I have no idea what they're talking about."
SPURGEON: Some suggested I ask you if you already know what the eventual DVD will look like. Will there be more stuff there? Do you have any sense of how it might differ from the theatrical release?
MELROD: The movie itself will be the same, but we have so much footage and there are so many opportunities to do creative things with packaging and extras. We're working on that. It's too soon for me to publicly say... we're talking to one of the larger publishers about partnering and putting together either a comic that will come with the movie or with the packaging of the movie. So we don't know what it will look like, but we have plans to do something interesting with it.