It’s nearly impossible to catch Brent Green in a calm moment these days. When we sat down at the beginning of May, Brent had just opened an exhibition at the Andrew Edlin Gallery. The night before, he’d performed at MoMA. Two hours after our coffee, his first feature-length film, Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then, would debut at IFC. Yet, we sat down to talk about William Kentridge and the South African artist’s exhibition, William Kentridge: Five Themes, at MoMA.
BG: I saw the Kentridge show at the Houston Contemporary Arts Center in 2002. I had just gotten a Creative Capital Grant so I decided I should learn something about art. There were about nine or ten of his films and then the giant charcoal drawings on the walls between then. I went in and thought, “I have to get better at what I do.”
BAB: What films had you made before the Creative Capital Grant?
BG: I’d made Hadacol Christmas and Susa’s Red Ears….
BAB: You had already been actively working in stop motion animation?
BG: Yeah, making films on the side and then I got the grant and it was my job!
BAB: Why did you start making stop-motion animations? What attracted you to that process?
BG: I was writing a lot of stories and a lot of songs. People weren’t getting the same things out of them that I was trying to put into them, I think, because I was missing part of the story. I would picture what I sang or wrote in my head … and people weren’t getting that. So, I thought I could control everything: the visuals, the sound, the whole package that I was trying to get out… I could control it all with animation.
…Why animation instead of a film? Because of the focus of something. If I took a picture of a staircase, to me, there’s a single banister that would pop out and that would be the most important thing in the photograph. For other people it would be the railing or another banister. But if I drew it, I could make that particular banister be the focus.
BAB: One thing I hadn’t realized about Kentridge’s process is that he doesn’t use storyboards, he just goes…. I’ve looked at a lot of your drawings and storyboards – the way you figure out the seconds and the corresponding movement of the mouth, for example.
BG: When I first started making films, I was obsessive. I storyboarded every single second. Every dancing scene I would map out. I used to do it so I wouldn’t go off track. Now, I don’t. I don’t map out the mouth movements. I map out, sometimes, the basic scene, but it’s more just having an idea of what I want to get across, but I control it a lot less. I’ve actually loved the human error of it, from the beginning…which you can tell. I’m running no shortage of human error! I think that’s something that Kentridge got right away. It’s more honest. It’s a lot less controlled. It’s a little more risky.
BAB: There’s a certain point in stop-motion animation that you have to control because it’s so intricate.
BG: Yeah, it is crazy that he doesn’t use storyboards. I don’t know. You get good at what you do.
BAB: Both you and Kentridge deal with fictional characters or fictional imaginings of real people, extensions of the self. You both insert yourself: he with image, you with voice. Describe the need to put yourself into your animations.
BG: I’m really only capable of writing as myself. I’ve tried to write as other characters and it just doesn’t work. The thing with Kentridge that I think is amazing, particularly with the apartheid stuff, is that he probably related to both sides, even the side that was awful. The more personal things are the more universal they are. In a way he’s trying to exorcize the awful part of him.
For me, I only see things from my perspective. My new film Gravity is Everywhere Back Then is about this guy, Leonard, who built a house because his wife was dying and he thought he could save her. Leonard is me. I took my framework and just draped it over his framework. It had very little to do with Leonard! That’s the way people do things. If you’re not a journalist, that’s the way you do it; you take your story and you drape it over a story, whether it’s about apartheid, or your aunt, or about some dude who built a house, or Beethoven. You wouldn’t write about something you don’t relate to. I’ll probably never make a war documentary. You find a subject that you relate to.
BAB: Speaking of Beethoven …your film Weird Carolers … how much fiction did you add to it? Did Beethoven really bite into his piano?
BG: I don’t know! Edison used to bite his piano, to hear it. I don’t know if Beethoven did. Really great composers don’t even have to play the music, they just write it down. Who knows if Beethoven even played the Ninth Symphony! I have no idea if it’s true. It’s probably not.
I wouldn’t be good at showing someone having inner turmoil, making a funny face. It’s much easier to show something being born out of turmoil –destroying stuff, biting stuff. But then it ends with Ode to Joy… so that’s a worthwhile tantrum, right?
On occasion, Brent performs the soundtrack to his films live. He and his band sit in front of the projection. Brent plays the guitar and pounds his foot against the ground. Brent’s narration is aggressively nervous in his films. Live, it’s even more arresting.
BAB: Performing the soundtrack, it’s another way to insert yourself – literally- on top of your films. Last night at MoMA, you performed Paulina Hollers and you were in front of the screen. I couldn’t watch the film without seeing you.
BG: Really? You had a bad seat.
BAB: I did not! It was part of it, of watching the production. Kentridge does something similar.
Kentridge started in the theater before deciding he couldn’t be an actor.
BG: He makes enough money that he wouldn’t have to play his own instruments.
BAB: You would still play your own instruments, regardless.
BG: I’d like to find out.
BAB: Is there something about stop-motion animation that you think attracts performers, or that makes you feel the need to perform?
BG: I think it lets me control the image more and adds an urgency to it. Of course with a live performance, there’s going to be a lot more intensity. It also adds a sense of homemade-ness and craft. That’s always been important to me. It’s obvious in Kentridge. You can see where he’s erased everything…like anyone could do it. I feel that way watching Kentridge. Hopefully people feel that way watching my work: “anyone can do this.” Then putting me in front of it and doing it live, that’s even more humanizing. You can see my reflection. You can see the Scotch tape. You can see the erase marks in Kentridge. It feels handmade and human.
IF IT SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE
BG: I always try to make the things that seem impossible to me. I never drew at all before I made my first hand-drawn animation! With Paulina Hollers, I closed my eyes and it was all in wood! So I had to figure out how to make this entire world in wood. It makes you focus.
With Carlin, I wanted it shot in the barn house I grew up in, so I had to make everything life-size. And then Gravity, I had to build a town in my backyard. It has to feel impossible when I start it, or I’m just not that interested in it.
BAB: So Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then premiers tonight at IFC.
BG: I’m nervous.
BAB: Have you thought of your next project?
BG: Yeah. If people like Gravity and I can get money to make another, I want to make a film about a guy, a loser, who makes a circus, just because he wants something amazing. Halfway through, he makes this circus that is disappointing to everyone. It’s just really pathetic, but he tries. He’s in an apartment and he gets an elephant, which he keeps in the apartment, so he has to walk it up the stairs and teach it tricks. It’s a room with ten foot high ceilings. At the end, he makes this giant wonderful circus, but he’s still a loser. That’s what I want to do. That’s seems about right. That’s how everyone feels.
BAB: Will it be drawn?
BG: A drawing of an elephant crammed into a room isn’t as cool as a real elephant crammed into a room.
It would be amazing to film people going to this just lousy circus… to film people being completely disappointed, like they want their money back. So, I think it should be people instead of drawings…to get their reactions to the worst circus ever.
BAB: Back to MoMA and Kentridge. Kentridge’s film [Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old] as well as the charcoal drawings of his wife getting into the bath made me think of Donna K., who stars in your film Tinkerer as well as in Gravity. Kentridge’s view of his wife [or of the wife/lover of his alter egos, Felix and Soho] made me thing of the tenderness you bring to your newer films and your view of Donna.
BG: I’m not! …I’m going to cry!
BAB: It’s so beautiful.
In both films, the stop-motion animation provides a gaze that just won’t or can’t go away – it continues and continues and continues, creating a never ending moment. That moment repeated in Kentridge’s drawings and your gaze at Donna.
BG: She doesn’t care.
She saw my drawing that said “I wish I lived in the 19th century when inventing and stealing was easy I get you all the best things” and she said, “Oh, that’s so beautiful, I wish someone would buy that drawing for me!”
I said, “It’s so much better to have someone write that about you!”
She said, “Uh. No.”
She doesn’t care…but, thanks for noticing.
BAB: [laughing too hard to speak]
BG: Yeah, Donna’s awesome.