PPLA sat down for an exclusive interview with Director Julian Marshall to talk about his latest project, Obey the Giant, a documentary on the early life of renowned street artist, Shepard Fairey, and the origin of his OBEY art campaign.
Julian Marshall, a D.C. native with a passion for skateboarding and snowboarding first met Fairey when he interned for him and later decided to make Fairey the subject of his thesis film at the Rhode Island School of Design. We sat down with Marshall to chat about his plans for this documentary and his future as a director.
PPLA: Tell us a little about yourself- your lifestyle and background?
JM: I am from Washington D.C. and I’ve been making movies and shooting videos for 12 years now. I started off making skate boarding videos and then moved onto snowboard videos. Then I was accepted to the Rhode Island school of Design and have been studying film at RISD. I graduated this past June. That is a pretty much me. Really it all began with skateboarding, then snowboarding, which then moved on to narrative filmmaking.
PPLA: This film has such a specific subject, what spawned the idea to create this documentary?
JM: I spent my summer developing material for my thesis film for RISD. The year began and it was about late September and I still wasn’t connecting with any of it on the level you need to in order to spend eight months to a year on a project. I decided to pull the plug on my original project. One morning I was sitting in my bedroom thinking about my principle towards ‘never forcing creativity’—you just have to do a ton of research and creativity will hit you when you least expect it. So one morning I woke up just staring at the OBEY poster on my wall that Shepard had given me when I interned for him. It just hit me. What more perfect a story to tell. Being a RISD senior with a similar background to Fairey, it just made sense to focus on the origin story of OBEY, to be more specific the Buddy Cianci billboard incident which is featured in the beginning of Fairey’s book Supply and Demand. I sent out an email to Shepard’s wife, Amanda Fairey, pitching the project and she got back to me about a week later stating that Shepard was very excited about the project. She told me to come out to Los Angeles and talk to him about it- interview him, start building the story- and that’s where it began.
PPLA: Shepard is an artist with much acclaim in the community and both positive and negative publicity throughout his twenty plus year career. What made you decide to focus on the Buddy Cianci incident?
JM: That seemed to be the perfect story for me to tell, being a ‘RISD story’ and me being a RISD student. So it made sense for me to make a story about another RISD student 21 years before I attended the school. I wanted to get down to the moment where this thing was still new and fresh for Fairey and he was just reacting. The time before he had the controversial publicity that he has recently experienced, like right now with the associated press lawsuit or the way some people seem to react to his OBEY clothing. I wanted to keep it simple and I wanted to tell a story similar to The Social Network– a “where did this thing come from” feeling. A lot of people don’t quite understand where this movement came from and they just see what it is now and take from it whatever they want.
PPLA: Agreed. Not many people are aware Fairey’s initial ideas or intentions. You have a street artist pre-Obama where work was looked at by most as vandalism or “street art” as we call it. How was it that you learned about what led up to the Buddy Cianci billboard incident? It’s not as if Fairey woke up one day and said, I’m bored and I’m just going to slap an Andre the Giant face over Buddy Cianci’s.
JM: I can speak to some of that. The jumping off point for the story was me seeing and reading the story in Fairey’s book. There are plenty of people still currently at RISD that were around at the time of the billboard-teachers of Fairey’s that are still here- so I amassed all of the research myself by interviewing people and ultimately found what I believe to be the black and white truth. I pulled everyone’s contributions together and then basically looked at how to build the best story from that. I thought, ‘How can we build the best, intricate, but still factual story from those accounts.’
PPLA: What was your process like as a director- from the time you decided on the idea for this project to the final shot?
JM: I was very lucky because this project has a very well known name, a very well known artist behind it, so people were happy to jump aboard the project from the beginning. Whether it be securing the gaffer (who also worked on Wes Anderson’s new film) or whatever it was, a large number of people were just coming together because of their love of my story and their love of Fairey’s artwork and movement. Having that amount of man power behind us really allowed me to focus simply on my vision of the movie and not have to micro-manage. It’s really me putting my best foot forward from a creative standpoint. I had enough people to do enough jobs that I can say very strongly that this is my vision.
PPLA: So would you say you succeeded at bringing your initial idea to life?
JM: There is a distinction to make. Often times in film school you’re making projects by yourself. It can be extremely stressful not having enough people to help spread out the labor. It’s been really stressful for me personally to make much smaller projects in the past with no money. To do a project of this scale with 150 people sharing the responsibility has certainly made it easier. In the end, a film or story can only be as strong as the idea. The story is really the initial spearhead. Once you have a good story, it can only get better telling that story, and we had a good story for the beginning.
PPLA: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during this project?
JM: There were a few challenges. One is the time frame in which I created this film, from beginning to end. I began the project in mid October- meaning that’s the first moment that a word hit the page. I wrote the initial story, then the screenplay was adapted by my friend Alex Jablonski. From that point what you ideally want and need is months to develop the story but we had about 5 weeks. It was definitely a struggle to know going in that I have ‘X’ amount of time which is nowhere near what we really need to get it done right and try to get something good done. The next challenge was simply on the money side of it. A lot of people got behind me to make sure the film got made from a budget standpoint. For any director often times the vision is there and you know it’s going to be strong but it just comes down to paying the bills. I got a substantial amount of funding to make this movie, and I decided that I was going to put all of the money into getting the movie made (as opposed to distribution/marketing etc). I made the decision that once the movie was made and once I had a trailer, I could put it up on Kickkstarter (which I did) and people will get behind it and help me finish it. So a big challenge was to make sure the bills got paid. I took a gamble. I knew people were going to stand behind and love this movie. I basically said lets gamble all of our money on just making sure this gets made.
PPLA: When casting the role of Shepard Fairey, what was the main focal point or criteria- a look, his essence?
JM: There were a few points to it. I wanted the film to include a lot of skateboarding so I knew I wanted to have an actor who could brings strong life to the role but who could also skateboard. I quickly found that you would have to have unlimited resources to find someone who can act and skateboard extremely well, so ultimately I went on the performance side of the spectrum with Josh Wills who actually did not know how to skateboard. We taught him a little when we got on set and got the shots we needed but it really lands on performance because at the end of the day, you can bring in a stunt performer who can skateboard. So for me, the casting was really all about the performance. Quite a bit of this role is based on reactions. I wouldn’t necessary categorize the character as an introvert but he is definitely more towards the introverted side of the spectrum, so it’s all about the reaction shots where you have to be looking into the actor’s eyes and really see the actor express themselves. There is a lot of narrative and I wouldn’t say the role has minimal dialogue but less dialogue that usual. However, the actor still has to portray these massive emotions. That’s were the eyes play such an impactful role. Whenever you look at an image or directly at a person you always look at the eyes first because that’s were we read emotion, so that was quite a bit of my casting process. As far as the look, there’s also a spectrum there. You can’t exactly have someone with red hair playing the role of Shepard Fairey because it’s just not realistic or factual so there was some challenge. After going through a number of people, we found Josh Wills, who just had that charisma and punk rock look, and looked as close as we could get with the money we had for casting. If you have a large budget for casting you can pretty much cast from anywhere in the world, but we were stuck to most of New England and a little bit of New York. It was tough but ultimately we found someone who was what we feel a cinematic version of Shepard Fairey.
PPLA: How much input was given by Fairey to make this project and the telling of this incident as authentic as possible?
JM: Here was the process. When I went out to LA initially, I went out there and I interviewed Fairey on the subject and got ‘his side’ of the story and that’s were I left it because Fairey wanted to make sure that this story was going to be told by someone who was impartial, by someone who doesn’t have a biased toward either side of the spectrum. I think I did that very well. Even while developing the screenplay, I didn’t send the screenplay off to Fairey until it was locked in and a couple days before we went into production simply because I did not want to be influenced. I think that it is really going to come through and be very genuine. Fairey really loved the screenplay. There were a few things we changed for cinematic effect but ultimately it is very factual.
PPLA: Who have been some of your strongest influences as a director both before and during Obey the Giant?
JM: Lets start on the skateboard and snowboard side of things, that’s were I started out. Lets start with a director like Spike Jonze who pushed the limits on the extreme sports side with his work for girl skateboards. He was probably my first influence or first reason for picking up a camera. Then I began to move more toward narrative filmmaking and I became inspired by Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Michael Mann, Paul Greengrass, Steven Soderbergh, and the Cohen Brothers. Those are my biggest influences. But David Fincher who created The Social Network and Fight Club was above all my biggest influence specifically in creating this film. Of course I’m naming these big name directors but those are the films I really enjoy- movies that can hit mass appeal but still have a soul to them. They’re films purely about storytelling and the power of the story behind Obey the Giant is what really pushed this film forward. So the directors I am inspired by are those that I feel stick by there guns and make films purely through strong storytelling. For example, you look at someone like Martin Scorsese who has a massive influence and is able to have extreme creative control even in a studio environment simply because people love his stories.
PPLA: What type of movies do you see yourself directing or creating in your career?
JM: Ultimately I am someone who enjoys storytelling. I am from Washington D.C. I’m from an urban environment- a skateboard environment. I can see myself working in almost every genre except comedy. I see myself as mostly an action or drama director. The next project I will be working on will consist more of both the drama and action side coming from a background of skateboarding and snowboarding and cinematography. I am a cinematographer also and I truly love action. But the thing about action is that it has to be motivated or else it just dies and feels story less- feels like crap. Look at movies like the Bourne Series (The Bourne Identity, Supremacy, & Ultimatum). They are really powerful action movies with soul to them. Those are really the ones that interest me. The films that are intricate and interesting to watch but at the same time they make you think. You don’t just go to the movies, conk out for two hours and leave. I go to art school so I kind of fall in the middle of the spectrum, if you want to divide it up between art filmmaking and big budget studio Hollywood filmmaking. I fall right in the middle where I have a sensibility towards both. I want to make movies that make people think but I want them to be seen, and I want them to be seen by large audiences. I think that’s were I land and that’s the direction I am moving in with the next movie I am writing right now.
PPLA: Can you share with our fans what your next film is about?
JM: This is something I want to keep close to the heart right now, because I am going to be developing it through the entire summer. My goal is that after this movie comes out, I think that there’s going to be enough to acclaim that I’ll be able to start talking about the next project.
PPLA: The film has already gained a lot of publicity in just the short time since its announcement and release of the trailer. As mentioned, Fairey is such a prolific artist and I think it’s safe to say there is a lot of anticipation for your film. How to you think the level of recognition you may get once the film is released will affect your career as a director?
JM: The hope is to submit this film to Sundance and be accepted. That right now is my biggest goal. I see this as hopefully being the beginning of my career, if there was ever a chance to ‘begin’, to make it, I think it would be with this project that just kind of landed in my lap, that I’ve just run with. I
PPLA: Is there a specific style, feel, or message that you aim for when creating a film or does each individual film have its own respective characteristics?
JM: Well, no, but that’s a very interesting question. As I was making this film, I began seeing my own style come out because I was able to take such a creative position on it. You look at a director like Scorsese who has a pretty hardened style or you look at someone like Steven Soderbergh where every movie he makes is different in style from the one before. I myself enjoy being more towards the Soderbergh side of the scale where each movie requires a different style, because it really depends on whether or not you want your style to become part of a brand or if you want your style to be entirely motivated by the story. This film lands stylistically between Collateral, The Social Network, and Goodwill Hunting in my mind. I guess it would be best to say I have to make a few more movies to really see my style. I’m not trying to push any particular style. I am just trying to make a movie I want to see and for me, this is the best way to look at it. I saw a niche and I said well I want to see a movie about Shepard Fairey and no one has made one so I guess it’s up to me to make this. That’s how I looked at this. I made a movie I want to see myself and I am very lucky that others want to see it too.
PPLA: Just out of curiosity, if you had to choose, what would you say your favorite movie is?
JM: I don’t enjoy when other people dance around this question, so I can definitely answer this! I can specifically say and I am certain that my favorite movie is Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola and that’s for so many reasons. As a film director, I have an extreme respect for the sheer determination that it takes to commit to take any story to the screen, any movie but especially with Apocalypse Now. With this film you have Coppola and his whole team literally off in a jungle and almost broke. Coppola literally had all of his money invested in this one major project which if it fails, he’s taking the risk of being poor, but the project continues on even when Martin Sheen has a heart attack and when the fleet of helicopters being rented from the military end up having to be flown off during production to go and fight actual battles! Making the film itself was like a war so it really came across in the artistry of the movie. It grabs me both for the beauty of the storytelling and the story of making the film. To me, this is why it stands out as my favorite movie. But there’s always a distinction being made in what you think is the “best” movie and your favorite movie. There are movies that can touch you personally and that you love, but may not be a great movies. But this is a movie that consistently entertains me and that I think personally is one of the best movies ever made.
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