If you were a child or teenager in the 1980s, there’s no way that you aren’t familiar with the work of artist Wayne White. An animator, painter, production designer, puppeteer and general jack of all trades, White’s creative energy was responsible for the look of shows like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Beakman’s World on top of countless commercials and the award winning music videos for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight.”
The subject of first time director and fellow graphic artist Neil Berkeley’s debut feature Beauty is Embarrassing (named after one of White’s famous word paintings) moved away from the television industry in the late 90s after growing disillusioned and depressed by the workload, but today the artist has reinvented himself as a magnetic on stage performer and as a painter and puppeteer chronically giving a middle finger to critics who believe all art should be dire and serious instead of light and fun.
In town to promote the premiere of the film during the HotDocs International Documentary Festival, White and Berkeley sat down to talk about his much storied career, the constantly changing face of both of their arts, and how documentaries, much like art, are often taken too seriously.
Dork Shelf: This is a different sort of movie about art in that it’s showing how art can be fun instead of being serious all the time. Did you guys ever talk about how to balance the serious and the fun and not make it just be a standard profile of an artist?
Neil Berkeley: Well, I think the material didn’t let itself for that, anyway. Wayne had his little beat in the late 90s where he was taking some medication and going through depression, but it never got real dark…
[Wayne puts his head down on the table and fakes sobbing]
NB: …until just now. There was a lot of people who didn’t really know Wayne, and I would go to a bunch of directors and producers and they would just kind of say that he really wasn’t documentary material. He didn’t really have a dark period, and he’s had a pretty good life, and I had to make them realize that they didn’t understand. But the people that knew him, knew how funny he was and the energy that he had said I should go and do it right now. So the idea was to focus on the inspirational and focus on the funny, because that’s the kind of movie that I like, anyway.
DS: And you don’t really need to manufacture a dark period to have a great story.
NB: And there were cuts of the film that did have more of a low point, and it felt manufactured. In screenings people would tell me that I didn’t need it. They knew why it was in there and that this was my first movie, but they said to just trust my gut and that I didn’t need to go there, and they were exactly right.
Wayne White: That was one of my trepidations about doing it when he asked me. I thought about all the documentaries I’ve seen, it’s seems that the basic M.O. is that it’s an expose, you know?
DS: Especially coming from a TV background like yourself and in that culture where shows like Behind the Music are so prevalent.
WW: That’s exactly what I thought of was Behind the Music, or any number of documentaries that I thought about. I didn’t want to be exposed or show any truly unpleasant things. Not that I had anything, but there was a bit of a mistrust at first. I thought he was going to try to trick me. It was going to be one of those things where I was talking happily, but the audience was thinking “Oh no! Wait a minute, buddy. You’ve got another thing coming.” and there was just this dark subtext where the subject always hangs himself the more he talks. The more he talks the more he buries himself. That’s a form of drama, documentary drama, that I was afraid of. But thankfully it worked out great. It’s true to life. It’s a very honest portrayal of me. It’s great. I love it.
NB: That’s what I enjoy. I enjoy comedies and fun movies. I love singing and dancing and I want audiences to have 90 minutes of a good time and to feel good.
DS: And that touches upon how like you guys say in the film that art is taken too seriously, where documentaries are sometimes taken too seriously.
WW: It is. I think a lot of that comes out of an academic thing. I think teachers can be bullies and they bully people into thinking that’s the only way to go. There’s a lot of great teachers, but I think the majority of teachers aren’t very good. I just do. I think most people aren’t qualified to be teachers, and yet they are, and they create crops of neurotic, confused people who think they have to follow some sort of rulebook, when they should be following their own desires.
DS: It’s that same kind of mentality that really holds a lens up to why awards shows like the Oscars have such a disdain for recognizing comedy.
WW: It’s L.A.’s insecurity. All the Eastern intellectuals, they want their respect. Even though L.A. is a very arrogant and prideful place, they still have that deep seeded insecurity where they want the intellectuals to like them. It’s the story of art in so many ways.
NB: That’s also why I intentionally left out a lot of the process in this film. Most art docs feature the process and it turns into a sort of “how-to” video. One, I left it out because how do you pick what part of Wayne’s work do you show the process of? Do you pick the paintings, his TV work, the puppets? Which one do you show? But also, two, because my dad is a cement mason in Oklahoma. He doesn’t care how the painting is made. He wants to see the finished product. So I made it for those people. I made it for the masses. I wanted as large a group of people to enjoy it as possible.
DS: And you didn’t want to take on the role of the teacher here.
NB: Absolutuely. My old college asked me if I wanted to come and give a talk there and I told them they probably wouldn’t want me to do that because the first advice I would give would be to get the hell out of there. (laughs)
WW: I think more people are affected by their academic lives in a negative way than in a positive on. If only it could be rethought. The educational system is so engrained, but so wrongheaded in so many ways.
DS: How did you guys first hook up?
NB: About twelve years ago in L.A. when I had just gotten there and I was trying to get into the business when I was doing PA work and I was just running errands and doing lunch, I saw him when he was drawing up some commercials. His resume was so impressive because anyone my age has seen Pee-Wee’s and Beakman’s World and the music videos. I just raced to him and he said…
WW: Get away from me punk.
NB: (laughs) I was just fascinated, and we were both from the South and I thought this guy was great. We stayed in touch. We were acquaintances and we knew who each other was, socially.
WW: We didn’t know each other well, though.
NB: No, not very well at all. And we started having lunch together every now and then. The book had just come out and the paintings were taking off and the Pee-Wee broadway show had just come out, and the timing was good, so if we were going to do it to do it then, and then it was just a matter of talking him into letting me follow him around with the camera.
WW: But the great twist is that the office where he met me in is now his own personal office. That’s his company. (laughs)
DS: You seem like the kind of person who after a while wants to move on from what he’s been working on and not really stay static. When you were working in television was it hard for you to really stay in that sort of mindset, especially when you were working on things like Beakman’s World and Riders in the Sky when you were at your most stressed?
WW: It was. [Riders in the Sky] just broke my heart. I couldn’t stand to watch it. I couldn’t watch one episode all the way through, and I worked so, so hard on it. The sets were great. I loved the sets, but again, it just fell apart. That’s one of the great, classic Hollywood stories. It happens more than success. Hollywood is about failure. It’s about 80% failure. I did feel trapped in television, but I had a family to raise and the money was good. I can’t complain. Beakman’s World was fun, but it was just too hard. The workload as an animator was killing me, but it was fun to do. But I worked in TV to make money to raise a family. If I had my druthers, I would have bailed out a lot sooner.
I rode the wave of Pee-Wee, and it opened a lot of doors. I had a house and I had kids, so I had to work.
DS: There’s also that kind of Superman mentality coming off of Pee-Wee and your music videos that you got a lot of recognition for. Did you feel there was always this mounting burden to take on even more responsibility with everything you worked on after?
WW: I did. First of all, I felt entitled because I had this huge success. I was 29, 30 years old. I felt like I had the arrogance of youth and I had this giant cultural phenomena behind me. I thought I was going to be the next Matt Groening. I thought I was going to have the next Simpsons. For years I was convinced of it, and that was not to be. And it’s sort of a blessing in a way because it would have just taken me into a world that would have just made me miserable. I can’t stand being in meetings all day. I’m not a businessman. I prefer much to work alone. I’m a classic traditional artist that likes to work in the studio. That’s who I am, and the Hollywood system, while it pays very well, I don’t like it at all. It’s not my thing. And I’m not condemning those who do do it. More power to ‘em. I’m just not a meetings type of guy, and it just got to the point where I started to develop a really bad attitude and I was just pissing people off. I would take it as far as I could. I just had a bad attitude. Thankfully, I snapped out of it.
DS: Now, Neil, as someone who has also worked in a different part of this industry, how much of your own experiences did you bring to this production?
NB: Again, this is my first movie, but I did have some experience. I knew what to do and who to hire, but what I tried to do was to meld my day job into this. I do motion graphics, designs and animations for television, and things to me always look animated, even if it’s a still that’s still something kinetic. It was to make things come to life and even make Wayne’s word paintings jump off the screen.
WW: Plus, you love comedies.
NB: Yeah, and I definitely wanted people to laugh. I was really pushing for the jokes and making sure that people had a good time.
DS: Was there anything that either of you would have liked to have included that just never made the final version of the film?
NB: Well, he never watched any of it while I was crafting it.
WW: I always say this, that I practiced the artist’s golden rule on this project. I didn’t want someone standing over my shoulder while I was doing something and I didn’t stand over his shoulder when he was doing something. He doesn’t know enough about painting to tell me what to do and I CERTAINLY don’t know enough about filmmaking. I know nothing about that, really. So I respected him as an artist. I was a bit nervous about the end result and not seeing it. Some people thought I was insane. “What do you mean? You should be in there!” That doesn’t make any sense. When you collaborate with another artist you have to respect them or the whole thing goes to shit. That’s the problem with Hollywood. There’s no respect for each other creatively. It’s just a constant power struggle, and often that doesn’t make art. It just makes a compromise.
DS: Now that the film’s about to premiere is there any trepidation about what this is ultimately going to do to and for your art?
WW: It already has done something. Just touring around with this film since March 10th to all these film festivals has taken me out of the studio. I haven’t really created any art since then. But this is a special time, and I don’t see it as much of a problem. I’m having too much fun watching all these audiences.
NB: Do you feel like you’ll be able to get away with experimenting more?
WW: No. I mean, I’ve always felt like I can experiment. That’s a tough one. Audiences are tough to change. The artist can change constantly, but to bring an audience along with him, that’s the real challenge. I think it’s always going to be a struggle to pry people away from those word paintings. But I don’t care. I’ll still keep doing it. I think more and more people will follow me wherever I go in the future now. Hopefully.
DS: Well, the artists that usually last the longest and gain the most respect are the ones who are constantly evolving and changing, especially in visual and graphic arts and in music.
WW: Yeah, musicians have always been my prototype for change, more so than visual artists. Musicians, like every other kid, it’s the first kind of artist that you know about is the rock stars. Bob Dylan especially is one of the earliest and greatest prototypes of someone who keeps changing and alienating his audiences. That’s interesting to me.
DS: Do you ever see going against the grain like that as sort of putting a wall up around yourself to keep your audience at a distance?
WW: It’s just doing my own thing. I always think about my own pleasure first, and then if someone likes it great. And if they don’t, well, I’m pissed off and I pout. (laughs) But fuck ‘em. I’ll keep doing it. You can’t let it get to you too much. I have a very keen sense of an audience, and I’m a ham. I’m a performer. I love getting up in front of a live audience to entertain them. That’s another instinct that I have that a lot of other artists don’t have. I can sit alone in a studio alone for months at a time, but you can also put me on a stage an entertain.
DS: Is was it ever hard for you as someone who’s a visual artist to go up on stage and make that leap?
WW: Not really. Everyday I am just that much of a ham. People are either born with those abilities or they aren’t, and I just seem to have been born with it. I just have an instinct with audiences. I can read them. I can tell what’s going to be funny to them. I can smell them. I can feel the tremors. I can read them like the weather.
DS: Neil, looking back on the art itself, were you ever fearful about doing justice to Wayne’s art?
NB: Oh, yeah. I was very fearful that he would like it. (laughs) But I showed to a lot of people and those that he respect, and his wife and his kids.
WW: My fears were eventually allayed with time because I kept hearing great progress reports from other people. He kept attracting some of the top talent in L.A. for the project. He even brought it to Mark Flannigan, who runs the Coronet Theater in L.A., which is an amazing room. It’s the hippest stage in L.A., where all the top comics want to work. The fact that I got booked in the theatre after Neil showed him a sample reel of the movie… Those things kept giving me assurances as I went along.
NB: I did let him see some of it, though, because he did the design for the end credits.
WW: Yes. I did do that. That was my one thing. I just couldn’t keep my hands off that, because that’s my thing, you know?
DS: You said earlier that you had trouble approaching people and convincing them that Wayne would be a good subject for a documentary, but did the people that you actually got to be on camera need a similar amount of convincing?
NB: That’s more so before I even shot a frame. I was going around to directors and producers because I had been doing title cards for documentaries for a lot of people, and I would tell them what I was doing, and that was hard because a lot of them were telling me it would make a better short. Maybe a 20-30 minute thing. It was actually Todd Oldham, who’s in the movie, who wrote the book, and he was the second thing I shot. He told me it was a feature when I said it might be a short. He said I had no idea and that I was going to find out that I had a feature movie. He was adamant. He was almost physically upset that someone thought this would be a short film. That was the green light I really needed to get this thing done.
WW: And I’ve been very fortunate to find people like Todd and Neil Berkeley who are people who believe in me more than I believe in myself. I think every artist needs that. No matter how arrogant or how full of yourself you are, you’re basically insecure, and there’s always the need for that.
DS: Were you ever worried about what people in the film were going to say about you on camera?
WW: Well, I was a little hurt that certain people turned him down. That’s sort of the litmus test of your past. “That guy doesn’t like me and that guy doesn’t like me.” I kind of knew it and could see it coming, but it still hurts. Indifference hurts. In many cases it’s not even that they don’t like me.
And that’s kind of the sweet revenge of this movie. I’ve had armies of naysayers, and we all have. We’ve all had a shit list of people who said we couldn’t do something or people that wrote us off. This is sweet revenge.
NB: It’s true, because I operate the same way. I don’t think even if someone cut me a cheque and told me to go make a movie, I would still be, like, “Fuck you. I’m going to do this my own way. It’s going to be good whether you’re a part of it or not.” That was a big part of my M.O. the whole time.
WW: And that’s been my life long thing that keeps me going. “I’ll show you.” And I mean audiences don’t really know me. They know the spirit that I’m passing along. It’s an incredible force that’s there for everyone to tap into, and I think that’s what keeps my ego in check. They’re really applauding the spirit of the thing and not necessarily the person behind it. Because they don’t know me. I’m a complicated guy who’s just as boring and dull as anyone else. But it’s great to be a representative of that spirit.
DS: What’s next for the both of you?
NB: Well, this is going to be my job for a while. Going to festivals and trying to sell it. Then hopefully in the fall we’ll get some distribution. So for right now, this is a full time gig. There’s things in the works, but nothing I can really throw out there. But my day job, BRKLY, my graphics company is kind of booming right now.
WW: I’m just gonna keep doing my thing. Next week, I’m going down to Virginia for a while month to create a giant installation at a museum down there. Huge puppets, cranes, like a giant 1880s boom town that celebrates the history of the region and Roanoke, Virginia. It’s going to be my biggest piece of art yet. So it’s onward and upward with me.