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Newsmaker Interview: Steven-Charles Jaffe
posted February 21, 2008


By Andrew Farago

Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird is a filmmaker Steven-Charles Jaffe's documentary featuring one of the most celebrated and iconic American artists of the past half-century. Wilson's distinctive cartoons and illustrations have graced the pages of The New Yorker, Nickelodeon, Playboy and National Lampoon, but his personal life remains a mystery. Jaffe's film is a lively and entertaining portrait of the man whom Director Guillermo del Toro honors with the title "the poster child of disenfranchised children."

I met Jaffe two years ago at WonderCon 2006, when Gahan Wilson was a special guest of the convention. Prior to the film's screening at WonderCon 2008 (Friday, February 22, 6:00-8:00pm), Jaffe sent me a preview copy of the film, and I conducted a brief interview with him via email. -- Andrew Farago

ANDREW FARAGO: Out of all the documentary subjects in the world, why did you choose Gahan Wilson?

STEVEN-CHARLES JAFFE: I've been a fan of Gahan Wilson's work since I was 11 years old, when my best friend showed me a Playboy magazine -- so in an instant I saw naked photos of women for the first time, and then Gahan Wilson (not naked!) and while I was flipping back and forth between Gahan and playmates, my friend had set fire to the field we were standing in... Never forgot that first memory, and I remained a devotee of his work every month, ever since. After seeing the movie Crumb, I felt Gahan deserved to have a documentary made about his work and life.

imageFARAGO: What's your background in the film industry? Had you worked on any documentaries prior to this?

JAFFE: The first movie I worked on was a documentary about boxing that was also to be a promo film for John Huston's movie, Fat City. I'm a fan of documentaries that don't employ a voice over narration that is not organically part of the main character or characters within the movie. This was an opportunity for me to get back to personal, hand made, indie film making -- a big departure from the large movies I've produced in Hollywood like Star Trek VI, Ghost, Strange Days, etc.

FARAGO: Had you met Gahan prior to pitching the documentary idea to him?

JAFFE: I met Gahan in 1989, and we became good friends and shared a mutual desire to do something together on film. We currently have a 3D animated script co-written by me and Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II, IV and VI; The Day After). It was written to be a large-screen 3D IMAX movie based on Gahan's illustrated novel, Eddy Deco's Last Caper. A very exciting project, which we hope the documentary will help promote.

FARAGO: Was Gahan receptive to the project right away?

JAFFE: Not completely. We actually started talking about it in 1999 when we were in Montreal checking out a 3D Animation process that IMAX had invented. In fact, there's a brief shot of Gahan testing the system at the beginning of the documentary -- he's wearing the 3D goggles while drawing and there's a strobing series of colored lights behind him. Eventually, four years ago I proposed it again in earnest. When Gahan said "yes," I stopped producing and focused all my time and energy on making the movie.

imageFARAGO: How long was the filming?

JAFFE: Three years. I shot over 175 hours of footage and then of course had a daunting task of editing it down to 100 minutes. There will be many truly cool DVD extras on this one, as I just couldn't include everything about Gahan's life and work within the framework of a feature doc. I am very happy with who and what ended up in the movie.

FARAGO: Who financed the film?

JAFFE: Me and my brother, Robert Jaffe.

Mel Brooks screened the movie and loved it. As you know, he's famous for many things, among them his mantra, "NEVER PUT YOUR OWN MONEY INTO A PRODUCTION!!!" After seeing it, he admitted, there are a few exceptions to the rule, this being one of them.

FARAGO: Some of the interview subjects, like Hugh Hefner (Playboy) and Bob Mankoff (cartoon editor of The New Yorker) are obvious choices for a film about Gahan Wilson. What was the reasoning behind the inclusion of Stephen Colbert, Lewis Black and Randy Newman? Was there anything in particular about them that made you feel they'd be fans of Gahan's work?

JAFFE: I asked myself, if I weren't making this movie, who would I want to see in it? So I made a list of people that I admire who have a distinct sense of humor and then I set about contacting them and their representatives to see if there would be any interest in giving me an interview. I only guessed that they were fans of Gahan's.

In fact, I've been astonished at how many people in so many different walks of life, have been touched by Gahan's work. Although not in the movie, Al Gore is a big fan of Gahan's and has one his cartoons in his home office! I knew Neil Gaiman and Gahan had collaborated in the past, so it wasn't totally guesswork, but I was so thrilled when Neil agreed to be interviewed.

FARAGO: One memorable segment of your film focuses on Gahan's visit to the offices of The New Yorker, and the audience gets a surprisingly in-depth look at the cartoon selection/rejection process, among other aspects of editor Bob Mankoff's job. How did you convince them to let you film this behind-the-scenes look? Have they ever allowed anyone to document this process before?

JAFFE: Yes, it was a remarkable day, and I hadn't really expected it to be so dramatic. Thank goodness, Bob rejected all of Gahan's roughs that day. It would have seemed fake if he hadn't! It's never been filmed before and there will be a longer version on the DVD extras. It was actually Bob's idea, and it turned into a Dickensian/Arthur Miller event. The funny thing is the cartoonists have no idea what the others go through when they are in [the office] with Bob. It's a totally subjective experience, until now.

imageFARAGO: I'm sure that most people who are familiar with Gahan's cartoons will be surprised at just how normal he is. What has the reaction been like from friends and colleagues who've seen the film?

JAFFE: People in all walks of life are not only surprised how "normal" he is but how remarkably caring and responsible he has been in his work from the first cartoon he sold: "Look Daddy, the first robin!" which could have been used as an illustration in Rachel Carson's book, The Silent Spring. I was also surprised at how many people's lives he has touched.

FARAGO: What was the biggest revelation/surprise over the course of documenting Gahan's life?

JAFFE: How his childhood influenced his life's work and how he survived through art.

FARAGO: Now that Born Dead has wrapped up, what's your next project?

JAFFE: I'm hoping we'll now get our 3D IMAX animated version of Gahan's Eddy Deco's Last Caper into production.

FARAGO: How is the film being distributed? When will people who can't make it to WonderCon be able to check it out?

JAFFE: We're talking with distributors now and there's definitely a building buzz. The next screening after WonderCon will be March 4th in New York at the IFC center as part of their "Stranger Than Fiction" series of documentaries.


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