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The Exit Through The Gift Shop Diaries, pt 1 of 2
ENTERING THE GIFT SHOP, (Part 1: Origins, 2008)
by Jaimie D’Cruz.
An anonymous phone call from a mysterious woman signaled the beginning of a two year odyssey for documentary producer Jaimie D’Cruz. Here he charts the behind the scenes story of the making of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop
Mysterious call from a woman claiming to represent Banksy. Apparently the notoriously anonymous artist wants to make a film and thinks I may be able to help. Considering that countless film-makers have been turned down in their approaches to Banksy, plus the fact that I haven’t made such a request myself, this seems an unlikely proposition. I naturally dismiss it as a crank call and carry on with the crossword where I am having trouble with 5 down.
February 2008 a bit later
Get another call, this time from a man claiming to actually be Banksy. Maybe this is for real after all. Over a decade earlier, in my incarnation as a journalist specialising in what is loosely known as “underground culture” I had briefly met Banksy, then an unknown (but already super-secretive) graffiti artist. However in the intervening years he had become so famous for his stunts and his anonymity that I had subsequently decided that I must have imagined this encounter.
February 2008 a bit later still
Meet Banksy in a London pub where he lays out his pitch: a French guy called Thierry has been filming him for a year or two. (Filming him? How?! Why?!). In fact he has been filming everyone. For years. Apparently “French Terry”, who has lived in LA for over twenty years, is a legend in the street art world, and has an unbelievable archive of all the big names (and a lot of the lesser known ones too) at work. Now Banksy has taken the first steps toward making a film about Thierry. I think this is a very strange idea. Who would want to watch a film about an unknown French guy called Thierry? Banksy says that I need to meet Thierry.
A package of video tapes turn up at my office: a mixture of tapes shot by Thierry and tapes shot of Thierry. He seems like a funny and engaging character. But I am still not sure why Banksy has suggested that Thierry becomes an artist when he seems perfectly happy being a film-maker.
March 2008 a bit later
Receive a DVD of Thierry’s film. It is 90 minutes long and it’s called Life Remote Control. I now understand why Banksy has suggested that his friend Thierry re-focuses his energies in a different direction.
Meet Chris King for coffee. Chris is one of the best editors in the UK documentary business and is always busy. However he is intrigued by the idea of Banksy’s pitch and agrees to come in for a couple of weeks. We go through the bag of tapes. It is clear that Thierry is a natural-born character: funny, likeable and clearly insane.
Bank Holiday Weekend, early May 2008
Banksy has commandeered a tunnel in central London to stage a huge stencil art event, The Cans Festival. He has invited some of the world’s best-known street artists to come and take part. He has also invited Thierry over as a kind of practice run for his own show. Thierry arrives in London and I start filming with him. During his few days in town, Thierry seems enthusiastic about the idea of Banksy taking over his film, and he promises that all the tapes of his years of filming are in the process of being sent to London so we can begin viewing and editing.
I am confused. I can see the appeal of a film about Thierry – he’s a brilliant character. But an art show? Thierry tells me that when Banksy suggested to him that he might try to become an artist himself, he thought it was “a genius idea”. He has rented a huge space in Hollywood for his debut show which will be called Life is Beautiful, and he has recruited a team of people who have been helping him over the last few weeks, making the art which will fill its cavernous multi-floored interior. He has adopted the name of Mister Brainwash (MBW) and he has decided to open on June 18th. A month from now!
Phone discussions about shooting style with B+, an LA-based photographer and film-maker. He and his crew will document the behind-the-scenes action in the build up of Thierry’s show in LA.
Various conversations with Thierry on the phone; he is terrified that his show will not be ready in time. But he is also adamant that it will be. He is a big believer in fate and he insists that whatever happens he cannot lose. He “can only go up”.
June 1st 2008
B+ calls. “You’ll never fucking believe it dude. Thierry fell off a ladder and broke his fucking leg.” Brilliant – did you get it on tape? “Nope.” However, B+ and his boys did rush over to LA’s Cedars Sinai hospital to film Thierry having his leg X-Rayed and being seen by a doctor. Thankfully one of Thierry’s helpers captured the ladder incident on a stills camera.
Chris King starts working full time on the tapes. He has been booked for three months. The only problem is that none of the promised new tapes have arrived. Thierry says he is still trying to sort them out. He isn’t quite sure where they are, or how many there are, or what’s on the ones he has got. And he says he has to make copies of all of them before sending them. I tell him that will take too long and he just has to take a leap of faith and send them.
June 2008, a bit later
Still no tapes. Banksy sends a friend to LA get them.
Mid June 2008
I fly to LA to film the final run up to the show opening. Banksy’s special envoy, despatched from London a week earlier to get the tapes is still in LA and is encountering some resistance. The struggle to part Thierry from his treasured backlog has been going on since Banksy first came up with the idea of swapping places with him. The rational side of Thierry understands that we need the tapes, but his emotional attachment to them has led to months of prevarication and stalling from the Frenchman. However, the moment of truth is upon us: no tapes – no film. Luckily Thierry has got enough on his plate getting his show ready and the envoy finally prevails and heads back to London with 700 or so hours of material for Chris in the edit.
Over the week I am in LA I get to understand more about who Thierry is. He operates from the centre of an intense group of family and friends – all of whom seem to be French Jewish émigrés, it’s like Paris with palm trees. I realise why Thierry’s English is so sketchy. He may have lived in LA for 20 plus years, but he has never really left France. Beyond his inner circle he has a gang of young talented guys and a highly skilled screen-printer called Celeste, turning out a never-ending stream of art. The operation is based out of an incredible studio equipped with professional looking screen-printing equipment and chock full of “stuff” being turned into art works (hundreds of TV sets, eight foot high stacks of warped vinyl records, literally thousands of single shoes which Thierry purchased as a job lot…)
Thierry seems to have built up a wildly varying body of work, from gigantic sculptures to spray painted bed sheets to tinkered-with oils on canvas to endless Photo-Shopped screen-prints of iconic images. It’s like someone went into a gallery with a giant Hoover, sucked up tons of art and spat out less substantial versions of them at the other end. The references are there in plain sight: Space Invader, Shepard, Monsieur Andre, Zeus, lots of Banksy and a good dash of Warhol.
June 16th 2008
Go to show venue and meet Roger Gastman, a street art expert (ex-graffiti writer, publisher, journalist, curator) who Banksy drafted in to help Thierry out with the production. We can both see that there is absolutely no way on earth this show is going to be ready for the opening. It’s definitely going to be a total disaster.
June 18th 2008
Thierry’s show is an outstanding success. Thousands of people attend. Thierry’s wife Debora tells me it is their wedding anniversary. But Thierry didn’t realise this when he planned the show. He isn’t good with dates.
Late June 2008
Back in London and Chris is getting stuck into Thierry’s tapes. Chris has Rainman-like powers of recall and an intuitive ability to spot the relevance of a tape as he watches it. Which is fortunate as the tapes are unlabelled, unordered and seemingly random. Some tapes have no audio. Some have no picture. Some have neither. We find multiple coverage of single events as Thierry often covers the action on two – sometimes three – cameras. When we find a tape that is labelled, the information is usually misleading or cryptic and dates, where they appear, are unreliable. By getting some key dates from Thierry’s wife (when they were married, when the kids were born etc) we start to work out when things took place by cross-referencing wherever we can.
Through the painstaking process of working through the tapes, the faint shape of a story slowly begins to emerge. Some key moments are revealed; when Thierry stumbles across his cousin who is, unbeknown to him, a leading anonymous street artist going by the name of Space Invader; the moment when Thierry meets Shepard Fairey for the first time…. And of course the big moment when he somehow persuaded Banksy to let himself be filmed in LA.
Still unsure how far Thierry’s tapes will take us we start shooting other interviews for the film. Some of these are with friends of Banksy, speaking about him for the first time (Damien Hirst, 3D from Massive Attack). Some are with critics, art world people, other graffiti artists, even a barrister. I also start to film master interviews with Banksy. After all it’s his story. He is initially uncomfortable being on camera but he is very funny, and another natural. Starting to feel this film might actually have legs – it’s a straight up two hander with a great back-story, some funny supporting characters and a ridiculous present tense narrative to boot.
With the main blocks of the story in place we now know what to ask Thierry, and shoot the first master interview with him in LA. As we go through the interview tapes back in London some incredible revelations emerge. Thierry admits he was obsessed with filming because it was a way for him to ‘preserve’ the lives of the people who were important to him. Having lost his mother at an early age he was trying to take control of his life by filming everything. It was his way to make sure, as he puts it, that “those moments would live forever”. Thierry also admits that far from trying to make the film everyone assumed he was making, his unwatched tapes, once shot, were locked away in boxes, never to be seen again. At last we understand why it was so difficult persuading Thierry to hand over his tapes.
Shoot master interview with Shepard Fairey in LA. Interesting stuff about the relationship between him and Thierry. Basically Shepard allowed Thierry to follow him around for 6 or 7 years. It had never dawned on him that Thierry had never seriously intended to finish his film. For Thierry, the filming was an end in itself.
Still blocking out the story, Banksy is happy with the way that the film is shaping up, but he is concerned that with the story gathering its own pace there doesn’t seem to be space to fit in the street art story itself in. We have a good archive of old footage but the sequences we are cutting from it seem out of place somehow. Banksy suggests that we make one short sequence which tells the whole story in a minute.
With the back-story more or less blocked out we start getting into our own footage of Thierry getting his show together. It’s a moment we have been a bit apprehensive of. We are jumping from telling Thierry’s story through his own material to telling it though our material. We aren’t sure what device we’ll use to signpost that handover. But as it turns out the transition seems to sit quite smoothly. No signposting needed…. Maybe?
Banksy’s notes are getting more in-depth. I think initially he thought it would be interesting to see what happened if he suggested that Thierry make some art and have a show; but I don’t think he guessed for a minute how far Thierry would go. When we had first met and I had expressed my doubts about his concept, Banksy had told me that at the very least we would end up with a nice five minute clip for you tube. I think we’re all realising that events have acquired their own momentum and that from here on we just have to run and try to keep up with the story.