Thursday, August 31, 2006

Andrew D. Cooke Interview



Andrew D. Cooke, producer of the upcoming documentary film,
Will Eisner: The Spirit of An Artistic Pioneer
.
(© 2006 Montilla Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)



If you haven’t yet seen at least the 10-minute sample of Andrew D. Cooke’s documentary-in-progress, Will Eisner: The Spirit of An Artistic Pioneer, please surf to the official site: http://www.montillapictures.com/ and check it out. (UPDATE: The name of the documentary was changed to Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, after this interview was completed.)

We’ll wait here.

(Whistling, finger tapping, rolling eyes…)

Oh, good. You’re back.

Pretty cool, huh?

Andrew, working with his older broker, Comic Book Artist magazine publisher Jon B. Cooke, started producing the documentary around the same time that I began researching the biography, Will Eisner: A Spirited Life. In many ways, we were working on parallel paths, one project complementing the other.

The movie is a labor of love for the Cooke Bros. and their crew. Excerpts have been shown at the 2005 Comic-Con International in San Diego, the 2005 International Comic Art Festival in Washington, DC, and as part of the acclaimed “Masters Of American Comics” exhibit at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Milwaukee Art Museum. It’s a high quality piece of work that, when finally completed and making the festival rounds in the future, should win its makers strong words of endorsement.

Andrew is a writer and director living in New York City. He has written two independent feature scripts, Darwin and Stone Diaries, for Producer G. Mac Brown (Unfaithful; To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar) and is currently writing a screenplay with director Alex Sichel (All Over Me) which Dolly Hall (High Art; Tadpole; 54) will produce.

He spent much of his early career in film production as a location manager, working on such films as Last Exit To Brooklyn, Scent Of A Woman, Flesh and Bone, then later Vanilla Sky and Catch Me If You Can. He also directed the short film, My Perfect Journey, which received numerous film festival awards.

For this, the last weekly interview in this series (others will appear sporadically in the future as opportunities arise), I wanted to end by shining a light on this worthwhile project. Andrew said this was the first interview he has done in support of Will Eisner: The Spirit of An Artistic Pioneer; I know it won’t be the last.

(If you’d like to know more about providing financial support for Andrew D. Cooke’s film, you can email him at acooke@montillapictures.com.)


Jon. B. Cooke, Will Eisner, and Andrew D. Cooke
at the 2004 Comic-Con International in San Diego.
(© 2006 Montilla Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)



BOB ANDELMAN: Andrew, why don’t we start with an update on your Will Eisner documentary. Where do things stand?

ANDREW D. COOKE: We are not certain, actually, what the final length is, but we are seriously into the final stages of cutting the most recent version. It’s not like a movie that you shoot and then you edit and then the movie is done, there has been a progression to it. We have been doing it in stages, so we have done a couple of interviews this past week, and we are going to insert those. We are moving along, doing pretty well. We probably have an hour, forty-five right now, so we would probably like to keep it around that length. We have a lot of work to do.

ANDELMAN: When do you think it will actually be done and ready for show?

COOKE: We are looking to have it completed by the end of the year. I think by the end of the year, it should be done.

ANDELMAN: Okay. Are you happy with the way it has turned out? Are you happy with the progress?

COOKE: I am very, very happy. Yeah, I am very happy. I am very excited about it. I think we have gotten tremendous support from people in the industry. People have been just incredibly gracious to us in allowing us to interview them. I think, yeah, I am very excited about it.

ANDELMAN: Why Will Eisner? Why a documentary? It’s the same thing people ask me about writing the book. Why Will Eisner, and when did you decide to do this?

COOKE: The long story, or the short story?

ANDELMAN: It’s the Internet. We have all the room in the world.

COOKE: Okay. Well, my brother Jon is an editor and creator of Comic Book Artist magazine, and I grew up reading comic books. I would say the two obsessions I had growing up were comics and movies. Jon and I collected all sorts of comic books, but we weren’t really aware of Will’s work until the Warren reprints came out. Once the Warren reprints came out, it just really hit us like, who was this guy? It was amazing work. Jon has our collection of our comics, but the things that I still retained, that I kept with me, were pristine, mint versions of those Warren issues. I loved them.

After high school and college, I decided to go into the movie business, and I sort of went away from comic books, and Jon, obviously, stayed with comic books. Several years ago Jon called me. We have done several projects together and had talked about making a movie together, and he called me and said, “What about a documentary about Will Eisner?” I thought, Wow, what a great idea. So we talked about it, and we talked to Will about it, and Will said yes, and so that sort of started the process. It was as simple as that. Jon wanted to honor Will in a documentary, and I thought that that was such a great idea. I would have to say that we had hoped we would have finished the documentary while he was still with us, but the progress, it just has taken us so long to do it.

ANDELMAN: Believe me, no one understands that better than I do.

COOKE: Will was a huge supporter of it, and he was such a great guy. We followed him around at conventions. At the 2004 Comic-Con International convention in San Diego, we followed him around, and it is very tiring to be followed around by a film crew. I have to tell you that Will and Ann were troopers. Sometimes, film crews hang on a little too long, because we try to get as much footage as we can, but Will let us follow him and was really sweet. We interviewed him about The Plot. It was just great. We sort of committed ourselves to doing it and then whatever it took to do it.


Novelist Michael Chabon
(The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,
Wonder Boys
, Summerland), from a scene in Will Eisner:
The Spirit of An Artistic Pioneer
.
(© 2006 Montilla Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)




ANDELMAN: Was there any hesitation on Will’s part to participate?

COOKE: No. Another documentary had been started by Tom Powers and Alan Edelstein, so I think that was the only thing, that he wanted us to talk to Tom and sort of see what was happening with that. But no. I never got any word of any kind of hesitation, no.

ANDELMAN: So where was the first place you interviewed him?

COOKE: We interviewed him in New York, here, and once again, it was a very long session, because we interviewed him entirely about his life, and he was so gracious. But by the end, I think it was pretty tiring.

ANDELMAN: Where did you do that in New York?

COOKE: You know, it’s funny, because it was so low budget, we borrowed a conference room in an advertising agency. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of that agency here in New York. It was on a weekend.

ANDELMAN: Wasn’t that the weekend he was honored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Plaza Hotel?

COOKE: No. I think it was a separate time. I remember we did shoot that. Which was first? That’s a good question. But really, we didn’t really interview him there. We shot the whole thing, and then we shot him out in the lobby, too. We shot Art Spiegelman and some other people, too.

ANDELMAN: Did you know Will at all before you started on this?

COOKE: No. Obviously, I knew of Will’s work. No, I had never met him. It’s funny, because in the documentary, we talk about when Will first met Denis Kitchen at the conventions in the ‘70s, and Jon and I were there around that time.

ANDELMAN: Couldn’t have been very old.

COOKE: No. Well, I guess we weren’t actually there at that convention.


Comic book artist and educator Joe Kubert (Fax From Sarajevo,
Yossel: April 19, 1943
, Sgt. Rock, Tarzan), from a scene in
Will Eisner: The Spirit of An Artistic Pioneer
.
(© 2006 Montilla Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)



ANDELMAN: I know what you are saying, though, because that was ‘71, I think. We are all about the same age, I think.

COOKE: I guess that’s probably a little earlier.

ANDELMAN: That’s funny, because I actually met Jerry Iger years before I even knew Will Eisner existed. I met him at the old Creation Conventions in New York, and I used to correspond with him. And somewhere in my files, there is an old hand-drawn picture of Bobby, his character.

Anyway, what were your first impressions of Will? You decide to make a documentary about this old comic book artist, and you haven’t met him. It’s a pretty big leap, and then you meet the guy. What were your impressions of him?

COOKE: My impression of Will was that he was an amazing guy. He was so thoughtful, I think, and he answered every question in a thoughtful way. I really liked him.

It’s hard to say what my first impressions were because I have been with him for so many years now in making this documentary, but I know at the beginning, my impressions of him then that I still have now, which is, I was incredibly impressed by him and his knowledge of the business and what a gracious person he was, I think.

ANDELMAN: When you were interviewing him, were there any off-camera moments you could share? Anything that happened out of the camera range? Any conversations?

COOKE: Not really, because most of what we really had done was on camera. We broke for lunch, and that was nice, but it was all pretty much small talk. I remember thinking later, he was the subject of an interview in the beginning, and then as we would interview him at the comic convention or spend time with him, that was a little bit more of a social time. But I can’t say that I sat down with Will and had a very personal conversation with him, because most of the time I spent with him, we were working on the movie, and we would be wanting to talk to him about his work or following him on the convention floor and seeing him interact with other people

For me, actually, when I first learned about Will’s passing -- actually from your email newsletter -- I had shut off my computer, and I was going to go to work, and I figured, let me just check my email one more time, and I got your email, and I think one of the things that immediately hit me was that I wish I had been able to spend more time with Will. I think a lot of people feel that way when somebody passes, but I definitely felt that with Will, because we had really spent… again, at the convention, he was so gracious to us, and it was nice to spend time with him.

ANDELMAN: How would it go when you were interviewing him? Was it you and Jon pretty much all the time, or was it just you?

COOKE: I am the director, and Jon is the interviewer. Jon has a tremendous knowledge of film history and Will’s career and the different players, so he interviews the subject. What will happen is, especially as the film progresses, I will know what the movie needs, and so if I feel like we are not getting that, then I will give Jon a question and say, “Why don’t you ask this? Try to ask a question that we might need the answer to for the movie.”

ANDELMAN: Was it just the two of you on the crew?

COOKE: No. We have a great crew. We have Kris Schackman, and he is the editor. Ben Tudhope is the cameraman, and he also edited the ten-minute piece that was our first demonstration piece. So it’s a small crew.

ANDELMAN: Would those guys be on the shoots with you?

COOKE: Yes, they would. One of the things from my end which generated this project is that I wanted to work with some people that I knew were good and we were looking to do a project together. But I have to say, they have gone so far, because there hasn’t been really much money at all. They have really dedicated themselves to seeing this through, and it’s interesting to watch them, because they didn’t know who Will was, especially Kris. As we edit the movie, he has begun to see Will’s work and has sort of fallen in love with different aspects of Will’s work.

ANDELMAN: I wondered if this was the kind of thing where you were hoping to show your ability to do something like this and establish some credentials.

COOKE: Absolutely. This is my first documentary. I think it was something that fit. For me, like I said, it was comics or movies, and I went into movies, but to do this, it’s about a subject that I know, and that’s important to me. I have learned about Will and his life, obviously, and the art and everything, and I knew about Will, but the comic world was something that I grew up with. We would go to conventions, and we would collect comics. It was very important to me, and I think if I hadn’t become a filmmaker, I would have become an artist. At that moment, there was that road when you sort of have to decide what you are going to do. It really appealed to me, to make a movie about Will. I think part of Will’s story, which is very interesting to me, too, is that his career has spanned the history of comics, and I think that that is really fascinating. And that’s one of the things that I have tried to include in the movie, because I think that was also important to Will.


Graphic novelist Art Spiegelman
(Maus, In The Shadow of No Towers),
from a scene in Will Eisner: The Spirit of An Artistic Pioneer.
(© 2006 Montilla Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)



ANDELMAN: How has the film changed in your mind and in execution since you began? Did you have certain ideas of doing a documentary when you started?

COOKE: We would get in discussions about what this movie would be. Our first goal was to raise enough money to do a ten-minute piece and then raise enough money to shoot it like a regular film. So we thought, What’s the first thing we need to do? We need to get some people to talk about Will and then do a ten-minute piece on it. So it evolved from that. The process has been me learning a lot about Will, a lot about who he is. I have to say, I loved The Spirit. Those Warren reprints, like I said, drew me to Will, because I had gotten out of reading comics. I knew about Will’s graphic novels, but I hadn’t really looked at them, and so as we started working on the movie, I started to see his graphic novels, and I just was kind of blown away. Then when we went to MoCCA, and we started to see the original artwork, I realized that I had sort of made a mistake when I was a kid, I had never really read the graphic novels. Now I looked at them -- really looked at them -- and they blew me away, the artwork and reading the story. They blew me away in a way that The Spirit did when I was a kid. That’s one of the things that I am really grateful to have gone through this process. For me personally, just to see this, to really understand what Will was trying to do, I think, and then really seeing the work, you begin to understand, I think, who Will was as a person. You sort of look at this work, and I was blown away.

ANDELMAN: Did it change the style of the movie?

COOKE: The style evolved. We are still evolving the style, as we go along. In the beginning, because we haven’t had much money, we have had to shoot what we could. We were stuck with what we had. I think as we got more material, it freed us up to be able to think more creatively, and I think as we acquired more of Will’s work and acquired more interviews, the style has kind of evolved from it. But it hasn’t been completed, and it won’t be completed until the movie is done, because Kris and I will continue to discuss it. There is an overall style to it. You saw the hour-long edit?

ANDELMAN: Sure, at the 2005 International Comic Art Festival in DC.

COOKE: One of the things that I loved that we have been able to use were the tapes from the “Shop Talk” interview tapes. When I listened to them, it was the first thing that, style-wise or content-wise, I really wanted to use.

ANDELMAN: From what I recall, a lot of times the documentary is moved along by interviews with Will but also with interviews with other people. How cooperative have people been, and is there anyone that you have not been able to get an interview with that you would like to?

COOKE: People have been amazingly cooperative. Our only restraint has been money and scheduling. One thing about making a movie about Will is that Will was very revered and respected and loved, and I think people want to honor that in the same way that my brother originally, when he came up with the idea, wanted to honor Will. I think Will’s career and his person touched so many people that there are a lot of people who want to be involved in it.

ANDELMAN: I know you have Spiegelman giving his talk. Did you also interview Spiegelman?

COOKE: We did.


Will Eisner’s long-time publisher and agent Denis Kitchen,
from a scene in Will Eisner: The Spirit of An Artistic Pioneer.
(© 2006 Montilla Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)



ANDELMAN: You did. You are one up on me there. I still can’t get him. One of the things that has come up in doing this interview series is that there are a few people who have not the most complimentary things to say about Will. Will any of that be touched on, or is this mostly kind of a loving tribute?

COOKE: A “loving tribute” seems to sound like we are glossing over something. I have my particular opinions about things, but I think we are being truthful to Will. I think we are being truthful to him and his story.

ANDELMAN: Who are some of the people who are interviewed and will be in the final version?

COOKE: We never know who is going to be in the final…

ANDELMAN: Well, I think you have a couple ideas.

COOKE: We just interviewed Frank Miller, as you said. Michael Chabon. Trina Robbins. Joe Kubert. Jerry Robinson. Max Allan Collins. Obviously, Denis Kitchen. Adrian Tomine.

ANDELMAN: I don’t know that name. Who is that?

COOKE: A graphic artist.

ANDELMAN: Where does he fit in?

COOKE: He is a younger graphic novelist. I think when we were at the convention, we interviewed Adrian and Peter Bagge and Peter Cooper, so we were getting a younger perspective, I think.

ANDELMAN: I know from knowing you and Jon for the last couple of years that financing has been a bit of a frustration, where you have had good luck in getting interviews with people you want, and people have been very cooperative, but has the comics industry itself been a little hesitant to provide some funding for this?

COOKE: I think it is still a conversation we have to have with different people. It has pretty much been self-financed, and we have gotten some donations, and Ann Eisner and Denis Kitchen have been incredibly generous to us. Have we received complete funding yet? No. But we have talked to people.

ANDELMAN: Just in case the right person is reading this, how much are you looking for?

COOKE: Well, that is still an ongoing process, too, and I think that if people are interested in becoming a part of it, obviously, we would love to talk.

ANDELMAN: Ballpark, are we talking hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, what do you need at this point to get it done?

COOKE: It is still something that we are working on, so I mean, for me to give you a figure, it could change today, but it could change tomorrow. It’s not millions of dollars, and it’s…

ANDELMAN: It’s not hundreds.

COOKE: Not hundreds, no!

It’s hard for me to give you a figure at this point when we are still working on the movie, because we progress as we can. We are going to finish the movie regardless of what happens, and we are relatively close now.

ANDELMAN: Obviously, it is not an inexpensive undertaking. How do you support yourself the rest of the year and underwrite what you have been doing now for several years?

COOKE: Well, I am a writer, a screenwriter, so that is what I do for my day job. You know, the progress of the movie is really my decision to say, “We need to do this now,” and if we have the money to do it, we do it. With Will’s passing, we really pushed. I guess it’s not that we didn’t push before that, but we have been trying to get this movie completed as quickly as we can, but because of financial issues, it’s a process. The editor and I have basically taken the summer off to work on the movie. I am incredibly grateful to the editor for that, but it was a commitment on his part to take that time off to spend entirely on the movie.

ANDELMAN: Are you paying him for his time while he is doing this?

COOKE: I give him a little something, but it in no way compares to…. Essentially, he is donating his time, and he is committed to the project to see it done.

ANDELMAN: What’s the end game for the project? Where will it be seen? I know some of these things obviously need to be worked out, but ideally, how do you think that people will come to be able to see it, where will it be shown?

COOKE: When Jon called me and we talked about it, we talked about it as being on PBS, an American Masters kind of thing. I think that was the impetus for Jon; he thought Will was an American Master, but he hasn’t been recognized in that way by the general public.

As you know better than anyone, Will’s life is huge. I struggle every day to put his life into an hour and forty-five minutes or two hours. I kind of look at it and go, “It’s not an hour.” When we got to an hour, we did a cut for Comic-Con 2005 in San Diego as a tribute to Will, and when we got to the hour, there were just chunks of his life that we couldn’t get to. So it was more than an hour.

One of my goals is to introduce Will to an audience that doesn’t know him. I want everyone who loves Will and knows Will to come see the movie, because I think that is very important, but I also want the rest of the world that doesn’t know Will to see it, so really, that’s my long way of saying that we want theatrical distribution. I think we have a really good shot at that, because I think he is an amazing person, he has an amazing story, and it’s not a story that has been told before. The movies that have been made about personalities in comics, at least the two biggest ones, Crumb, and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, they are people who are just so different from Will. I love Will as the artist and the businessman and the personality, and I just think that that is going to be great.


Will Eisner, from a scene in
Will Eisner: The Spirit of An Artistic Pioneer
.
(© 2006 Montilla Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)




ANDELMAN: What else are you working on these days?

COOKE: I am writing a script with a director named Alex Sichel who is an independent director. She directed a movie called All Over Me, which did really well at Sundance several years ago, so that’s my day job. Particularly now, most of our time is spent on working on the documentary.

ANDELMAN: Okay. And do you have a wife and kids?

COOKE: I have wife, Patty Willett, who also works in the movie business. She is a production supervisor.

ANDELMAN: How old are you?

COOKE: 45.

ANDELMAN: I thought we were about the same age. Jon is a little younger?

COOKE: No, Jon is older.

ANDELMAN: Jon is the older brother? I always thought he was…

COOKE: Yes. That’s because I seem so much more mature!

ANDELMAN: As much as you guys are relying on Will’s signature as kind of a signature point for the look of the film, do you have a ready story to explain to all the people who are going to come to you and ask about the similarity between his signature and Walt Disney’s?

COOKE: Do you have a story for that?

ANDELMAN: I don’t. It’s funny you ask that, because I get asked all the time, and the best I can do is that he and Disney were, it was the same era. Disney was working earlier than Will, but it is basically that era, and I don’t have a good answer. I wondered if you guys had one.

COOKE: No, I don’t. It’s interesting to me, because we have so much of Will’s work in the movie and look at some of his work that you look at his signature and then you see this progression and then you wonder at some point who was actually doing that signature. So no, I don’t know.

ANDELMAN: Who are the filmmakers that you admire and might like to emulate a little bit on this documentary?

COOKE: I have to say it’s Scorsese. I think his Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, blew me away. As a biography, it was amazing. I love him as a feature filmmaker, but I think as a documentarian, he is amazing, too. I would say it is Scorsese.

ANDELMAN: And what about the visual look? Same thing, or is there someone else?

COOKE: You know, that’s a funny thing, because I have looked at other documentaries, but in terms of thinking about the style of our movie, it hasn’t been derived from the look of another documentary. Obviously, I have looked at things like Crumb and Comic Book Confidential . But we really tried to find a different style for Will, and I think that has worked well for us.

ANDELMAN: This will eventually end. Do you have something in mind to do next?

COOKE: No. I am so wrapped up with this that we can’t really think about the next step. I love doing this documentary, and I think I will do more. I think my brain right at the moment is split between features and documentaries, so obviously, with the documentary, I have ideas of things, I love it. I love the truth of it, I love the reality of it, that’s so different from fiction, and I think one of the goals is trying to be real and truthful and truthful to Will as best we can.



Jon. B. Cooke's massive print tribute to Will Eisner
in his magazine, Comic Book Artist.


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