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LAFF 2012 INTERVIEW: THE WONDERFULLY WEIRD WAYNE WHITE AND BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING DIRECTOR NEIL BERKELEY

A few days ago I was talking to BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING’s director Neil Berkeley on Twitter about setting up an interview. I saw the film a few days ago and it’s unquestionably one of the best of the fest. Two days later, we bump into each other at a LAFF cocktail party, and Neil asked me if I wanted to do the interview with him and Wayne White, the subject of his documentary, at Wayne’s studio. I said yes, like any professional would, left the party, and nerded out like anyone who is even slightly familiar with Wayne’s work would. This charismatic weirdo is responsible for those bizarre puppets you saw on Pee-wee’s Big Playhouse when you were little, but that’s just a tiny moment in his gifted and colorful career. Berkeley has gracefully captured Wayne’s imaginative voice and vision in BEAUTY - it’s one of the most terrific documentaries I’ve seen in years. 

I met with Neil on Sunday morning and we went into Wayne’s house where he was having breakfast with his family for Father’s Day. (I must take this time to thank his wonderful wife Mimi - who’s also an accomplished artist - for the delicious food). Shortly after, we went down to Wayne’s studio which was filled with wordy works of art and that giant crazy, cool LBJ head - and began the interview. Enjoy. 

Chase: I’m going to start off with you, Neil. I want to start from the top. This is your first film. Why did you decide to make your first film a documentary and when and where did the idea of beauty start to develop?

Neil: Well I, like most people, came out to Hollywood to get into movies. I was writing scripts and TV show ideas but really I was just a PA and intern and just digging ditches. So two things that sort of collided: I knew I wanted to make a movie, right? But also when I met Wayne I knew I wanted to make a movie about Wayne. So it was sort of two dreams colliding. It really started to come to fruition about mid-2009. I had a new company I started called BRKLY that did main titles for TV shows and films. Wayne and I started to have lunch together and we were eating pizza one day and I said, “Hey, you know, you got the book that just came out, your career is kind of taking off, you’re in Esquire magazine, lets take advantage of that, lets make a documentary about you.” And he kind of put me off, like, no no that’s not a good idea, no one want to see that, that’s going to be boring. But finally I said well you’re going to Houston, and I called him up and he was in Houston, and I said, “Hey man, I just bought a camera and some microphones. I’m going to buy a ticket and come down and shoot the Rice installation.” And he said, “Alright, come on down.” So that’s where it really kicked off, but honestly, I’d been wanting to do it of years and years and I was very scared someone would beat me to it, because I couldn’t believe that he had this rich history of impact on pop culture and I knew who he was and how funny and magnetic he could be, so I thought ‘man someone’s going to jump in there and do this.’ So I kept it kind of quiet and I told a few people. The people who knew him were like “yeah great idea, go do it.” But the people who didn’t know him were saying “Well no one knows who he is, who knows…” Like, I told some pretty heavy hitters in Hollywood that I was doing it and they all said, “Don’t do it, it’s not a good idea.” And I showed them.

Chase: You showed them, you stuck it to The Man. 

Neil: For sure and some of them work off…. (fades off, laughing) 

Chase: Don’t get yourself in trouble! So Wayne’s career spans over 20 plus years. How do you tell that in 90 minutes? 

Neil: It’s hard. Well, that’s the reason I knew the movie would be good because there’s two stories. There’s Wayne’s resume which is amazing. You know, just from a professional standpoint, he’s prolific and he’s done so much stuff. And you can’t get it all in there. There’s stuff we didn’t get in. There’s a lot of work that he did that didn’t make the cut because there’s just so much. I mean, Peter Gabriel was whittled down to a shot or two and that’s a huge, impactful video. And there were TV shows that didn’t make it in just because of time. So it was really a back and forth of how much of the career do we tell and how much of his life do we tell and actually the life really started to get more and more and is, to me, the best parts of the movie. You know, seeing him with his family or down here in the studio working, his parents, Mike Quinn, so it was really, you just figure out how much of those stories you tell and when it came to the resume it became, okay, what’s the most important, what’s the most visually stunning, what’s the most memorable, who’s going to recognize it? So that was really the challenge there. 

Chase: Very cool. And this is for you Wayne — so the documentary’s being made about your life, which means that you’re going to have to let people in on your personal space. How did you decide on how much you were willing to let Neil in? 

Wayne: Well, my first fears when he wanted to do this was I looked at other documentaries and they often seemed to be about exploitation and exposure. Exposing something that’s painful or raw or not so pleasant. That seems to be the dramatic motor of documentaries, exposure. You know, they rip the mask — they rip the covers off and here’s the dirty maggots underneath. So I was guarded to go in, I really was. I was guarded, I was protective of my parents when we went down to Tennessee because they’re like complete naïves as far as any of this business goes, so I didn’t want them to be put in a corner, you know? I didn’t want to be put in a corner. So yeah, I definitely had my guard up and I’ve been around Hollywood and filmmaking long enough to know that it’s a tricky dangerous business when you go on camera, you got to watch yourself. I’ve made tons of mistakes on camera over the years being interviewed for TV shows and stuff. So, I was definitely self conscious and prepared to present myself. But as it went along, I just kind of forgot that because Neil was here every day and he was such a ubiquitous — is that the right word? Ubiquitous? I don’t know — He was such a constant presence that I started to take it for granted and let my guard down and just became myself. Plus the new technologies are so unobtrusive, the little camera, there’s no crew, there’s no lights, it’s like you’re just talking to someone like right now, so I did just kind of after awhile let my guard down and just became myself. So in that sense, it does capture something real. 

Neil: You know one comment we’ve gotten a lot is there’s an intimacy to it, and you can kind of see the growth or the track he’s talking about because in the beginning when he brings up that painting and says “this is one of the first things I did, this one’s called Eastern Fuck It.” He puts it up there, he doesn’t look at me, he’s not that animated, he’s just kind of going through the motions, but later on in the movie, something we shot towards the end of shooting was that “just leave the awards on the kitchen table” and he reads it and looks at me and says “that’s funny” and he’s like reacting, responding, you know, getting my, not approval but just running it by me. And you can really see what a year and a half does to just being in a room alone with somebody. And it was. In the movie when we’re in here, it’s just me and if we’re out in the world, it’s just me and Chris Bradley and Wayne. Never more than two people. No lights, no crew — 

Wayne: Yeah, especially when we were out in the world it really, the cameras really disappeared. They were just a couple more faces in the crowd with these small objects and I never even thought of the camera after awhile. I think that’s true of most documentary subjects, I think, you get used to it and start to just relax. But you’re naturally going to be guarded at first. 

Chase: Oh absolutely, and I think that saying what about you, you know, there’s a big trust factor of you being the filmmaker and you being the subject and you letting your guard down so I think that’s great. One thing in the film that I wanted to talk to you about is you kind of talk about how you got burned out by the Hollywood mumbo jumbo so what made you want to somewhat return with this film?

Wayne: Well at first I didn’t want to return with this film, at all. I didn’t want to do it because I am very suspicious of cameras and dramatic interpretations and the whole Hollywood myth-making process. I don’t trust it. I’ve seen it affect people in bad ways. But like I said, besides Neil’s obvious talents as a filmmaker, one of his greatest talents is persistence. Which is number one, I think, for any artist. If you’re not persistent, forget it, you’re not going to make it, you’re not going to do anything. Sheer obstinacy is very very important for anybody who wants to create and Neil has that in spades. So he was just obstinate. He never stopped. When I see that, I respect that and I thought well, alright, he’s like me in that sense, he’s persistent, he wants to do it and I’ll get in on that. One thing I always said though, when we first started doing it, I just thought, well okay let’s just pretend we’re doing it, I’ll humor him. Okay, you pretend you’re a documentary filmmaker and I’ll pretend I’m the great subject. Alright, let’s just pretend we’re having an interview. You know what I mean? That’s how it really felt at first, I was just kind of humoring him. And, you know what, that’s kind of how feel towards myself a lot. Okay, so you’re a sculptor, alright play like you’re a sculptor. Fake it till you make it is one of those cliches that is absolutely true and most people don’t want to do that because they think it’s silly but you’re constantly fooling yourself and tricking yourself into doing things in this life.

Neil: Especially in Hollywood

Wayne: You really got to like kind of pretend to, you know.. It’s wish fulfillment. Most people don’t believe in that. They think it’s silly, but it’s true. 

Chase: Yeah I couldn’t agree more. Neil, going to when you were talking about Wayne looking up at you — and that’s funny right? That’s a really organic moment. And there are a lot of organic moments in the film. What steps did you take in hopes to get those organic moments versus manufactured? 

Neil: Well I mean really, you just — Chris Bradley, the producer/editor on the movie, early on he made a lot of movies and when he came in he was sort of my saving grace because he gave it like shape and focus because he knew what he was doing and I was just trying to figure it out. And he said to me, “You know, people come up to you and say ‘man you’re so lucky you got that shot, you’re so lucky that happened.’” And he said, “Just remind yourself all the time there’s no luck in this. Because things are going to happen whether you are there or not, you still need someone to push the button on the camera and get it and know it’s going to work of the story.” That’s very true, because he’s right. Like Sandra’s daughter, we knew she’d be there, we didn’t know what she’d do or what she looked like or how she would react so we just said “Mrs. Stoddard, Wayne’s inside, here’s a book,” and let her go in. And Chris was there with the camera, and, you know, he got the shot. That moment in here, that was just a day of me and Wayne shooting. I was going to shoot him painting. And that ended up being one of my favorite scenes in the movie because it really shows — 

Wayne: And the banjo playing that song. 

Neil: Oh, another one. The Blue Ridge Mountain Song. I needed — I was putting together teasers to show investors and I needed some banjo so I said, “Hey I’m going to come over, I’m not even going to light it, I’m not going to shoot anything, but I want camera audio, just play.” And Wayne started to hum. And this was over a year into shooting and he had never sung or hum or anything and I said, “Are you humming?” And he said “Yeah, I’m just humming a tune.” And I said, “Is it a song? Do you know the words to a song?” And he said “Yeah I know the words, it’s called Blue Ridge Mountain Blues.” And I said, “Wait, hold on, can you sing and play at the same time? What is going on?” So he sang the song and played it. I knew about his parents and his dad and I heard the lyrics and I was like, oh wait, this is a moment, this is real. So I said, “Okay sit there, let’s shoot it.” It’s just being aware. Like that’s how — that’s what’s organic about it. It’s being aware and seeing it and knowing your story and what you need to get and then making sure you get it right. We shot that song several times because I knew I had to get it right. So that’s why, it’s just being aware and being open. 

Wayne: I think a lot of the best moments are like that. That were just found and organic and a lot of the most carefully planned constructions were ditched, like the green screen stuff and all these well laid plans were not as good as the organic moments, I think. 

Neil: And Mike Quinn. You can’t plan Mike Quinn. You can’t assume that — we had no idea. We knew he was something else. Wayne was always saying, “You gotta get Mike.” We had no idea what he was really like. So you go there and you meet him and then here you go. 

Chase: That’s always the scariest thing about doing interviews. I don’t know them personally so questions are always like, is this overboard, is this maybe too goofy for them, how will they take me serious? 

Neil: People love real human chemistries and if you can put it on the screen you are going to get people’s hearts; you’re going to go straight to them. That’s one of the secrets of life. I think we got a lot of that on camera. 

Chase: Oh absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. So going back to earlier, what you said that when you’re talking to people about making this film and some people didn’t know who he was and they were urging you not to make it, and the film is made and some of the audience may not know who Wayne is, how did you balance his career and personal life while making it all engaging at the same time? 

Neil: Well, I think just the way he naturally tells the story. That’s the one thing did, we let him be the narrator for his own movie. So that worked out really well because you never really feel like you’re leaving his story. Even when you’re in Pee-Wee’s it feels like it’s Wayne’s story, and when you’re in the South you’re learning about Wayne but you’re getting his career. You hear about Mrs. Cabobble’s but he tells us the story. When he’s up on stage delivering his monologue, he’s narrating. He’s the narrator. I think that ended up being a great device to move us through the story, keep it about Wayne, and let him sort of tell his own story. 

Wayne: That’s the root of the problem I had with it in the beginning too. I’m neurotic in the sense that I can have a crowd of 300 people cheering you, applauding you, standing O, but one guy come out of the audience and go, “Hey man, you should have cut 20 minutes. That wasn’t so good.” And I’ll just obsess on that one guy. After all this love, I’ll obsess on him and want to smash his face in and strangle him and kick him down the stairs and I’ll be pouting about that one guy all night. I can’t help it. I always focus in on the negative. No matter how much I’m on and people are loving me, there’s always some like, and it’s usually a woman too, in the audience rolling her eyes, “Oh Wayne, you’re embarrassing yourself.” There’s always someone like that. So when Neil asked me to do that, I always see that one prototypical smart-ass New York woman rolling her eyes in the audience, “Oh Wayne, please stop, you’re just embarrassing yourself.” So I’m always going to get that reaction because when I perform I’m very extroverted and I wear my heart on my sleeve and some people don’t like that. They’re embarrassed for me. So I kind of was focused on that a little too much and I don’t know why I do that, it’s just that one little smudge always bugs me. I’m a perfectionist I guess. Everyone has to love me, I guess, I don’t know. 

Chase: So going into that, does make it harder or easier to be in front of a camera talking about your life?

Wayne: Well no, once the cameras rolling or the audience is in the seats, I’m on. I can’t help it. I go into a trance. I have some sort of performing gene that’s just there and I cannot explain it but I want to connect with people through a camera or on a stage. I just can do it. I just have an intuitive sense of it. So I love doing that, I love going into that trance. 

Neil: That’s another reason I knew it would work. Those interviews we shot, most of the interviews of Wayne we shot in here over the course of like three or four days. When you see the “too long at the fair” when he’s against the books. I would come over here in the mornings at like nine and we would have coffee and then come down here and shoot for a few hours and then come back the next day and do it again. But not having gone through it really, I just said, “Look, tell me your story, start at zero and we’ll just go to today.” It was like flipping a switch. Loquacious is the best word. You just turned it on and he just went and went and went and I was like, oh this is going to be easy, this guy will talk all day. 

Wayne: I want to communicate. I do; every artist does. That’s why you’re an artist. It’s about communication, no matter how impossibly hard your art is to understand and how much of an ivory tower or high horse you get on, it’s still basically communication or why are you doing it? I hate the whole group of artists who are so hermetic and completely indecipherable on some level and they’re all proud of themselves for it. It’s like, how obnoxious, how pretentious. And that’s part of my mission as an artist is to kick down those people or make fun of that type of high horse attitude. 

Chase: Going a little deeper into when you said you want things to be perfect and a little neurotic, so — 

Wayne: And another thing is guys who had these things done and then they come back going “Oh I didn’t want to do this, this is horrible, this is so horrible.” Like Crumb, when his movie came out, what an asshole. I mean come on, man, that is so disingenuous. That’s such a bullshit attitude. You let him do it, you went through the whole process and now you’re going to act like you’re too cool? I hate people who act too cool for school. Just own up to it, dude. 

Chase: That pretty much answers the question because I was going to ask how you kept your distance from Neil whenever he’s doing his filming, post production, all that.

Wayne: All I do is work, that’s all my life is work. And that’s all I’m really concerned with is doing my thing. I just came back from a month and a half of work in Virginia, where I did my biggest art installation yet, my biggest piece of art yet. I worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for a month and a half. I’m just a mule with blinders on, I can’t help myself. So after the filming was over, I didn’t even think about it, it was back to work.

Neil: He also let me do my — like, he didn’t see it until South by Southwest with the crowd at the world premier. He let me do my thing.

Wayne: That’s another thing I keep saying over and over about it. I practice the artist’s golden rule. I wouldn’t want somebody telling me how to finish my painting, I’m not going to tell him how to finish his movie or how to shape his movie. When I commit to working with an artist, I give them as much respect as I would like and if I’m not going to commit that way, then I don’t want to work with you. If I see that I can’t respect you or I see that you’re fucked up somehow, I won’t work with you. But I committed, I believed he could do it, and I believed it until the very end. That’s the risk you take. Making art is nothing but risk, always. If it’s not risk, it’s no good. 

Chase: Absolutely. So one of the most recognized moments in your career is Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. When you started working with Pee-Wee, at the time, did you know he was going to end up blowing up to be such a big pop culture icon?

Wayne: Well he already was a pop culture icon. By the time I came along, he’d already made Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in ‘86 and that’s how he got the TV show. So he was on a huge roll by the time I came along, not quite peaking yet but there. I mean, he was coming on strong. So, yeah, it was already very exciting when I jumped in and that’s what spurred us on too, just the pure excitement of working with a superstar. So that was a thrilling, thrilling time for me. That was what took me off the mean streets of New York and gave me a career. 

Chase: So Neil, going back to this being your first film, you’re making a documentary on a career about a guy whose career is still going. So when you were shooting how did you know when it was complete and ready? 

Neil: That’s a good question. These things could go on and on and on and on. I guess, I knew, well, we knew we had the story told, we knew we had his career told, we knew we were up to today. We started screening it for a lot of people and showed it to a lot of people and it took many forms. You give yourself a deadline. I knew it was ready when I thought it was good and people thought it was good and we knew we were there. It’s not like, there’s no ending, nothing’s going to happen in his real life that was going to end the thing. 

Wayne: We did create our own little dramatic arc with that talk though. The talk began as just crude slide talk and then I shaped it with Neil’s direction into an hour long piece of theater, a monologue, and then it played here in LA and then it sort of peaked out in New York City at Roseland Ballroom with the big audience and the standing ovation and they kind of used that as an emotional, dramatic peak in the movie when I’m dancing in slow motion on the stage at the end. So that arc of that talk kind of determined, I think, the end of the movie. 

Neil: Yes, that is very true. The talk is a very important part of the movie and actually when you see it, when you first see it, it’s at Largo, but the first bits of it are at the art center and it’s very small and intimate and it does, it does go big and ends up at Roseland Ballroom with 1500 people in the crowd. So it sort of is like watching his career from the small space to where he is now, which is, you know, on top of the world. 

Wayne: I think that definitely for me gave it a dramatic arc and after that Roseland thing it felt like, all right, now it’s time to start cutting it all together. That was like, travel to the big city, the promise land, hit a home run, and now lets put it together. 

Neil: We didn’t shoot a whole lot after that. 

Chase: So to kind of finish this up, the film’s done and you’ve played at some festivals. So kind of talk about the Kickstarter campaign for its theatrical release and how that’s going.

Neil: We had our world premiere at South by Southwest and since then we’ve been to nine more festivals. We’ve been to Atlanta and Boston and Hot Docs and Full Frame and Nashville, Oklahoma City, and now we’re in the LA Film Festival and we’re going to be in Silverdocs next week and we’re going to be at Just For Laughs in Montreal in July. We’ve won three Best Documentary awards, we’ve won an audience award for the fan favorite in Nashville, and it’s been amazing. And our distribution plans are going very well. We got TV lined up, we’ve got DVD and Blu-ray and digital lined up. And we really want to do theatrical because I want people to see it in a crowd, in a dark theater, because there are so many emotions that are just better when you react to people reacting to it. Like laughter. People love to laugh together. Like when I’m at home and I’m watching shows, I don’t laugh out loud, but if I’m in a crowd and everyone is into it… And also inspiration. I think there’s an energy that goes, it’s a very inspiring movie and there’s an energy in a crowd that just gets amplified. So we’re going to do theaters but we’re self-distributing. We’ve got rockstars: PR, booking, producers ready to take it out there into the world. And we’re trying to raise the funds to market the movie and make sure that happens. So we started a Kickstarter campaign. You can go onto Kickstarter: “Beauty is Embarrassing,” search that. But the great thing is, the really cool thing is, yeah you’re helping us with our movie but you get rewards and you don’t get all the money unless all the money comes in. Like if you want $10 and you get nine, you don’t get it. But we got t-shirts and DVDs, signed books,  we got silkscreens that he designed, we got a print of an actual Word Painting that says “Beauty is Embarrassing” — 

Wayne: Even an LBJ head 

Neil: An LBJ head, a replica LBJ head, signed posters, private screenings, we’re putting a letter-pressed poster on there today, a beautiful letter-press. So it’s really, everywhere we go, every festival, “How can we own Wayne’s art? How can we own Wayne’s art?” And this is the best way to do it right now. And original sketches, like he’s going to do sketches for people. So now’s the chance to own some Wayne White art. Because these things, most of us can’t afford.

Chase: That’s fantastic. Alright man, well thanks so much for both of your time. I mean, I’m super stoked, going back to the theatrical thing, I’m with you. I don’t like watching screeners, unless I have to. I watched this on a screener and now I’m glad I can make this film on Thursday. I try not to watch screeners because movies should be seen in a theater, it’s the whole theatrical experience. So it’s great and I’m going to do all I can —

Neil: Thank you

Chase: All my 10 friends. I’ll try to get them to come.

Neil: Well, Twitch Film has a following so that will help.

Chase: Twitch Film has a pretty big following so yeah, that will definitely get my word out about everything.

Interviewed and Posted on Twitch Film

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