American Artifact – Interview With Merle Becker, The Director

We reviewed American Artifact a while ago, and if you ever get a chance to see it, please do.
director, Merle Becker agreed to spend some time with me for a good ol’ chat. Below is the result. Enjoy.

How did American Artifact come together? Was it a hard slog? How long did it take to put together? Are you pleased with it’s outcome and reception?

Merle: American Artifact was a four year labor of love. I got the idea to do the film after seeing the book The Art Of Modern Rock in a bookstore. AOMR is a huge coffee table book of rock posters, mostly from the ’90s to present. It is an AWESOME book!

I had always been a fan of rock imagery (music videos, album covers, etc), and I suddenly came across this book filled with beautiful posters for all these current bands, and I was blown away.

The most difficult thing about any sort of independent filmmaking, as you probably know, is supporting yourself and the project financially during the whole process. This film was completely independently funded. And, although I received a small grant towards the end of the process, when you’re working like this, you must always stop to do the proverbial “paying jobs” along the way. In the end, you’re usually still left with a lot of debt. So, that’s always a bit tough.

But, it’s a film I’m very proud of and it has received overwhelmingly good reviews, and has screened to sold out crowds. I get a lot of great emails from people every week who have been inspired, or touched by the film. And, the rock poster community has been very supportive of the movie, as well.

BRWC: How did the premiere go in SanFran?

Merle: The premiere in San Francisco was a blast! The film premiered during the Rock Poster Society’s “Rock Art By The Bay” event, and it was one big poster celebration that weekend. We had a packed screening(s), and a panel of artists from the film did some Q&A after the movie. It was unbelievably fun, and a day I’ll never forget..!

BRWC: Do you think the photocopier was the facebook/twitter/myspace of its time?

Merle: There’s a funny story in American Artifact that the artist COOP tells about this. You know, kids today often have trouble imagining a time without computers. But, if you were a teen of the ’80s (like myself), you know what it was like. If you wanted to let your friends know about your band’s show, you had to hang up flyers. And, if you wanted to find out what cool shows were going on, you had to find out through friends, or more importantly, you’d check out the flyers that were hung up around town. Today, of course, if you’re in a band, you’re putting all that info on your website/Facebook/MySpace/Twitter accounts, and texting/emailing friends about your shows. So, in a way, yes, they ’80s flyers were like “the MySpace of the ’80s”.

BRWC: Has computers helped of hindered poster art?

Merle: The internet has enabled many of the rock poster artists doing it today to not only connect with hundreds of other artists doing the same thing, but to also make their art available to a worldwide audience through web sales. So, in this respect, it has helped the movement tremendously (and, any art for that matter). Now, an artist doesn’t have to rely on a gallery or a dealer to sell their posters, they can do it on their own.

BRWC: Any changes or similarities from 1960s, 70s or 80s regarding the art and it’s processes?

Merle: There are quite a few similarities between the rock poster art coming out in America during the different decades. Many rock posters have a political element; symbols, messages, etc. Most rock posters are done on micro-budgets, and are targeting a subculture, whether it be the ’60s, ’80s, or today. Most rock poster artists aren’t doing it to make a lot of money, which is something I suppose could be said for art in general. But, rock poster artists seem to be doing it because they love the music, the scene, and they love making art. What I found while making this film, is that these posters so closely reflect what’s going on in American culture at the time they are being made. For me, this seemed to be the most obvious common thread within the genre. No matter what decade the poster came from, you can take a look at it and see a little bit of what was going on in America at that time.

BRWC: Are you aware of poster art in the UK or rave flyer art in the 1990s in UK?

Merle: The UK has some GREAT poster/flyer art – As does most of Europe. It was difficult to just concentrate on American rock poster art for this film, but if I didn’t, it would be a five hour movie!

BRWC: Did you want to lean towards more female artists – Leia Bell, Tara McPherson, etc.?

Merle: I LOVE both Tara and Leia’s work. And, it’s truly a shame there aren’t more females doing rock poster art. But, the way both Tara and Leia explain it is that it seems like most people who get involved in doing rock posters were either in a band, or worked with bands. And unfortunately, there aren’t as many women doing this as men. Although, this is quickly changing. I tried to be as accurate as possible with regards to representing the “scene” of rock poster artists in the film. So no, I didn’t try to lean more towards the females, but I do really wish more girls were doing rock posters.

BRWC: What would you ask Alton Kelly or the legendary Rick Griffin if you had the chance?

Merle: Haha, this is a great question. I’d have tons of questions for the both of them. But, picking a few (for the film), I would ask Rick to talk to me about what drew him to the poster scene, and to talk about his work. There’s so much detail in every poster he did, it would be so great to hear about where those ideas came from and what those images meant to him.

I would ask Alton (among other things) about how he and Mouse came up with their ideas for their collaborative posters. It would be great to hear him talking about their (legendary) artistic partnership. Alton was also one of the original founding members of the Family Dog, so I’d love to ask him some questions about that experience, maybe not for this film, but for my own interest.

BRWC: Whose work did you most enjoy, and why?

Merle: This is kind of like asking a mother to pick her favorite child, no? Ha ha. My biased answer would have to be all the amazing poster artists who did movie posters for American Artifact. There were 9 artists total who did movie posters for the film (Chuck Sperry, Chris Shaw, Scrojo, PNE (who consists of Jermaine Rogers, Justin Hampton, and EMEK), Stanley Mouse, Hatch Show Print, Leia Bell, Paul Imagine, and Dennis Loren), and they are ALL my favorites, and those posters are so precious to me. You can see them here (under “MOVIE POSTERS”).

BRWC: What bands interested you whilst making this film?

Merle: I listen to mostly college and internet radio. Lately I’m mostly into “indie pop”; The Bird & The Bee, Inara George, Blonde Redhead, Belle & Sebastian, Fountains Of Wayne (who are not-so-indies), etc, etc.

For the movie though, I had to find music that sounded representative of the era represented in the scene it was being used in. So, I discovered a lot of great indie psychedelic, punk, and modern/quirky bands.

Incidentally, the music selection during the filmmaking process is one of my favorite things. For me, it’s almost as important as the interview itself. Music gives another line of dialogue while the interview is running, in my opinion. The music can be playful or mocking while the interview sounds serious (giving a whole new meaning to the scene). Or, the music can also point to a place or time period, giving context to the dialogue (such as the Nirvana-sounding music during the scene in the movie about Seattle). As a filmmaker, I think it’s really important to take advantage of things like music to help to tell your story.

Music also often inspires me to cut a scene in a certain way, or to be excited about a certain part of the movie. Music, to me is ULTRA important!

BRWC: Do you silk screen yourself?

Merle: I didn’t before I made the movie, but I bought a Speedball kit so I could film it for the movie, and I got hooked. The tee shirt that you see getting silkscreened in the film was my first silk screen endeavor, and I’ve made quite a few since. It’s a bit addictive…!

BRWC: Are you a fan of art in movie titles, eg the work of Saul Bass for example?

Merle: Oh yes, the movie titles are sometimes the best part of the film, for me! I’ve always loved “short form promotion”, or in other words, things like title sequences, movie promos, commercials, etc. There’s something really great about the challenge of having to get across certain information in the most interesting/memorable way possible, in a short amount of time.

I try to keep my workload divided into both long form a short form projects for this reason. Sometimes, the best product comes out of a project with restrictions. 😉

BRWC: Will there be any screenings in the UK?

Merle: We’re shooting for an April premiere in London (sorry about the wait). We have two screenings in Europe this month. More info about them is on the website. We’re also in the process of setting up more European screenings at the end of this year/early next year.

BRWC: What are your future projects, and the future of freakfilms?

Merle: We currently have two films in development (both documentaries), one which is going into pre-production in January, 2010. Sorry, I know this is annoying, but it’s a bit early to talk about either of them at this point!

© BRWC 2010.

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.



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