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The Exit Through The Gift Shop Diaries, pt 2 of 2
ENTERING THE GIFT SHOP, (Part 2: 2009 – 2010)
by Jaimie D’Cruz
For a while now Banksy has had Bristol drum and bass legend Roni Size composing music for us. He now gets Geoff Barrow from Portishead involved too. With Roni Size and Geoff Barrow scoring original tracks we have some of Britain’s best musical talent on board.
The overall narrative is pretty much in place. It has a weird beginning, a bizarre middle and a frankly unbelievable end. Now we start fine cutting and refining the narration script. Already the talking heads are pretty much gone, discarded on the cutting room floor. All that remains of the master interviews is actual testament from those directly involved in the story. It’s encouraging that we haven’t in the end needed to rely on cutting away to generic interviews to tell the story about wider issues such as Banksy’s relevance, the origins of graffiti or street art’s crossover into the big money art world. Thierry’s tapes and the story they tell, plus the broader narrative of his art show seem to be a compelling enough story in its own right.
“Last” tapes from Thierry turn up. All throughout the editing period we have been calling up more tapes from Thierry, usually in response to specific holes in the story. For example when we needed more videos of general family scenes, or more tapes of Thierry’s first foray into making his own art, or old pictures of Thierry as a kid. But Thierry has from time to time unearthed another box of tapes and shipped it over. This last batch of tapes includes Thierry’s footage of Banksy’s 2006 ‘Guantanamo Bay’ stunt at Disneyland. What a find.
Still shooting master interviews with Banksy. Naturally, as someone who works with the power of images, he is all over the composition of the shot and I have to keep stopping recording to play back for him so he can see the frame. After a few experiments he wants me to shoot the interview back-lit so he is in silhouette, wearing a black hoodie. To be on the safe side he has also decided to wear a ski mask under his hoodie. That should do it! This will end up being the main interview set-up used in the film (the mid-shot with the monkey mask in the case) along with another wider back-lit shot in his studio.
Having only signed on for three months Chris has been turning down film after film to extend his availability to us and, finally, an immoveable commitment means he has to finish after a mammoth ten month edit. It’s a blessing really as we could be rough cutting forever. With this impetus we finish the main ‘offline’ edit and lock the picture.
A new editor, Tom Fulford comes in for just “a couple of weeks” cleaning up and recuts. Just fine cutting really. Or so we think. Late addition of another interview (with Space Invader) shot in London. The picture is unlocked!
Up to this point only those directly involved in making the film have seen it. Naturally we are working in highly secretive conditions, but now we hold a couple of small screenings for two or three friends at a time to gauge reactions.
As the film edges slowly towards completion Banksy is becoming more focussed on the minutiae. For me it’s a very unconventional way to make a film. He is not just one of the main contributors, it is also his idea and his film. But probably the most unusual aspect of the production is that there doesn’t seem to be any urgency. At one point he explains to me that when you finish a painting the thing to do is leave it for a bit and come back to it later. There is no equivalent in the world I am used to when there is always a commissioning editor breathing down your neck or a broadcast deadline looming. But that doesn’t apply here. Hardly anyone even knows we are making a film!
What shall we call it? No one sure what the title should be. Banksy likes Exit Through The Gift Shop. Seems a bit leftfield to me. Begin cutting a title sequence. Banksy is adamant that as well as the minute-long street art sequence in the film, we need a big street art sequence up front. Ironically Thierry’s footage, amazing and bizarre as it is, is fairly sketchy on actual art being done. We start to trawl for footage, putting out the word in the street art community: if you did it and shot it we want it for a “graffiti’s greatest hits” title sequence.
Thierry flies over from LA to watch the film for the first time. Everyone nervous. He declares it to be “the best film I have ever seen in my life.” Thierry then tells us that he has been commissioned by Madonna to do the cover art for her new album. Can this be real?
Recuts, fine cuts, addition of a couple of shots from yet more new tapes brought over by Thierry (so the last “last” tapes weren’t the last ones after all).
Fine cutting continues. Tom’s “couple of weeks” of fine cutting is now in its fifth month. Shepard Fairey is in London briefly and comes in to watch the film. He likes it a lot which is a relief and puts to rest one of the elephants which has been hanging around in the room; the film which started off being Thierry’s film about Shepard has now morphed into Banksy’s film about Thierry. Surreal moment driving through London with Banksy and Shepard when we suddenly spot a gigantic billboard for the new Madonna album displaying a forty foot high image of her by Thierry/MBW. It’s all getting a bit meta.
Fine fine cutting; we’re really just tinkering now. Picture lock again. Online and grade begins. Really need to decide the title of the film.
Bombshell drops. It turns out that since seeing it in July, Thierry now thinks he may have some issues with the film and he flies back in to see it again, this time with his entourage. He can’t put his finger on what exactly he doesn’t like. But he does say, ominously, that it is a great film, “except for the end”. Everything suddenly feeling a bit wobbly.
Thierry arrives back in London with a bag of tapes. He has some ideas he says. My heart sinks. Over the next couple of weeks Thierry flies in and out of London and we try to accommodate his ideas which turn out not to be ideas at all. Painful as it is, this process is not without entertainment value. Thierry has a natural gift of speaking as if prompted by a very witty screenwriter living inside his head – he’s full of lofty quasi-philosophical observations which he really, actually means. Completely genuine and totally lacking any sense of irony, Thierry may seem silly but he takes himself very seriously.
Banksy is getting more frustrated. He, like all of us, has great affection for Thierry and doesn’t want to him to be upset. On the other hand it is becoming increasingly difficult to take his erratic suggestions seriously. This is Thierry after all we have to keep reminding ourselves – the crazy Frenchman who had never done an art show in his life. Yet now he is telling us that the film may damage his “reputation” as an artist.
We tell Thierry to relax and leave the film making to us. Finally he disappears back to LA, his attentions thankfully diverted by the need to prepare work for his new, even bigger show he has coming up in New York.
Banksy has created a Frankenstein.
Banksy has brought in actor Rhys Ifans for the film’s narration. Rhys’s off-key fruity wryness fits the tone of the story well. We are still cutting the title sequence. We’ve managed to get a good selection of bare-faced vandalism from our trawl of footage online and elsewhere, but it’s been a bit of a struggle. It’s incredible how little footage exists, and it shows just how invaluable Thierry’s “rooftop years” really were in documenting the key events of a movement which may never have been caught on tape otherwise.
We really really need to decide the name. Exit Through the Gift Shop it is. Screening for potential distributors in the UK. Loads of them come. The film seems to be well received, but everyone appears to think it’s a hoax. Not quite sure what to make of this.
Banksy turns up in Park City, Utah where the Sundance Film Festival is held and donates a few unsolicited artworks to the city’s walls. The press are immediately enthralled. A few days later Exit Through the Gift Shop receives its world premiere at the festival with an unannounced surprise screening. Almost immediately an incredible consensus starts to emerge both in the press and the blogosphere: Exit is a hoax! While the reactions seem almost entirely positive and full of praise for the film, no one seems willing to believe that we have told is true story. It’s a bizarre position to find ourselves in. it’s hard to gain a critical distance from something you’ve been so immersed in but it had never really occurred to us that the film might not be believed. I guess people – film critics in particular – are scared of looking foolish if they were to praise the film as a documentary only for it to be revealed later on as a hoax. Most commentators seem to have come up with a variation of the idea that while they of course realise it is all a “clever spoof” or a “wry faux documentary”, Exit still has interesting things to say about life, the power of hype and the commodification of art etc. Some of the more outlandish theories suggest that Thierry IS Banksy. Others speculate that Banksy, Shepard and Invader got together, cooked up the idea of Thierry and then created him as a way of exposing the shallowness of the art world. Most commentators suspect that at the very least, Banksy played a much more active hand in the transformation of Thierry from loveable eccentric to art world sensation than in fact he did. I find this puzzling because Banksy’s involvement is clearly documented in the film which explains that it was Banksy’s idea in the first place for Thierry to try to put on his own art show; likewise that Banksy stepped in, enlisting Roger Gastman and co. to help when it all looked like it might spiral out of control; and that he gave a quote to the LA Weekly which fuelled speculation that Thierry was “Banksy-endorsed”. But even Banksy couldn’t have created that outcome. Nor I suspect would he have chosen to.
Banksy and his crew build a cinema in a derelict railway arch in central London to show the film to proper audiences for the first time. It’s an incredible transformation and once they have constructed an amazing 150 seat cinema complete with original velvet-covered Victorian music hall seating (bought on e-bay), they fill the space with Banksy’s pieces including some of the animatronics from his Village Pet Store in New York and the Bristol City Museum show from last summer, as well as a riot ice cream van handing out popcorn and wine. Over 2 weeks the film plays twice a day to general audiences, journalists, crew and friends.
Meanwhile in New York, Thierry’s new show Icons opens. Bigger and bolder than Life Is Beautiful, the new show is an immediate sensation. The same night Icons opens in New York, we unveil Exit at the Berlin International Film Festival. The co-incidence of these two unrelated events is claimed by some to be further evidence of the elaborate hoax!
Exit opens nationwide in the UK. Low-key word of mouth screenings are held in a few key American cities. By now the film seems to be earning a global reputation as a spoof documentary of epic proportions. It’s a hard charge to react to – on the one hand it is fantastic that the story is considered to be so unbelievable that it must all be one giant hoax. But on the other hand, it’s only a powerful story because it is true. This is all testament to Banksy’s original insight. He saw that Thierry would make a compelling subject for a documentary because Thierry is genuinely unique. But the corollary of that uniqueness is that no one can believe Thierry is a real person! Whatever the case, Banksy’s reputation as an international prankster means that it is useless to protest. We’ve gone from the Emperor’s New Clothes to The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Exit’s US premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre in downtown LA. The theatre which is semi-derelict and normally only used as a location is perfect – despite the fact that it takes us three days to make it capable of actually projecting a film.
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Postscript: September 2010
With Exit in its sixth month of release in the United States and more screens scheduled to open all over the world, the art career of MBW goes from strength to strength