Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 11/12/2003
Blaze of Glory
Lance Laspina on Frazetta: Painting With Fire
It's pretty rare when you get to meet your idol, and it's made even more difficult as their celebrity increases. So imagine just how hard it would be to meet someone as highly esteemed and well regarded as Frank Frazetta? Now imagine for a moment that you wanted to do a documentary on the notoriously reclusive and camera-shy grandmaster's life and work, with his full cooperation...
That's just what Lance Laspina, life-long fan of Frazetta's work, did a little while back. Only he dreamed with the intent of making that scenario a reality. And, with the help of two childhood friends and the extended Frazetta clan, that's exactly what he did.
However, as you're about to discover, that quick summary of events does little justice to the actual tale of how Laspina and company brought Frazetta: Painting With Fire to life.
Preview the Frazetta: Painting with Fire trailer here!
(Requires the QuickTime Plug-in)
Bill Baker: Let's start with the basics: Who is Frank Frazetta, and why did you chose to do a film about his life and art?
Lance Laspina: To me, and to the hundreds of thousands of fans out there, Frank Frazetta is one of the greatest artists the world has ever known. And I realize that is a very bold statement, but if you take a serious look at his originals, you'll see that his work possesses all of the elements that make up great art. He is blessed with an incredible natural sense of composition and use of light and color. He has an uncanny knowledge of anatomy, and notice I didn't specify human anatomy, as he can accurately draw any creature that has lived and many who have not. Some may say he exaggerates the anatomy of his characters, but he only slightly embellishes his characters to give them a heroic sensibility.
He is keenly aware of how to properly draw the viewer's eye to a particular part of the canvas by purposely leaving the shadowy outlying areas impressionistic, while detailing his central figures. And most importantly, he's a wonderful storyteller, as he is able to capture a moment in time in the lives of his characters, displaying to the lucky admirer what has just happened and what is about to happen. Combine all of these qualities with the very primal and savage nature of Frank's chosen subject matter, and you're left trying to catch your breath when standing in the presence of his originals.
So now that we know Frank Frazetta is a very talented artist, what else has he done to deserve a documentary on his life story? Well for one, he was responsible for influencing thousands of young budding artists to pick up a paintbrush and begin the dream of becoming a professional working artist themselves. And aside from this very "conscience" influence, he also "unconsciously" affected the lives of thousands of others in a pop culture sense. People fell in love with his imagery so much that they tattooed it onto their skin or painted it onto the sides of their vans. They may not have known the artist's name responsible for these fantastical paintings, but they sure did recognize and appreciate his work. In addition, Frank, along with his wife Ellie, pretty much established the precedence of artists receiving their original work back from the publishers. But this is only the tip of the iceberg of this incredible man's life.
Frank grew up in a tough area of Brooklyn, New York called Sheepshead Bay. It was here where he learned to stick up for himself by swiftly discarding bullies twice his size, and where he formed his love of baseball that continues to this day. Frank was an extremely gifted athlete who valued his physical talent over his artistic ability. He was approached by the New York Giants baseball team to join their farm team, but turned the offer down to pursue a career in commercial art. So you can see that Frank was definitely not fit the stereotype of being an introverted artist. On the contrary, Frank possessed Hollywood good looks and was very popular indeed.
The most extraordinary part of his life would happen much later when he began to get hit with a number of health problems. While in his mid 50's, Frank endured the incredible pain and discomfort of a thyroid condition that would remain undiagnosed for eight years. That's right... eight years! He lost almost 60 lbs and was on his deathbed when at the last moment the problem was discovered and he was immediately put on medication, which fortunately saved his life.
Almost ten years later, Frank suffered a debilitating stroke that would leave the right side of his body deeply affected. In fact, he could no longer draw or paint with his right hand due to the numbness and loss of control. Most people, when faced with a situation such as this, would've thrown in the towel on their careers, and after the run Frank had had, he certainly deserved to do so. But as he has done throughout his life, he decided to fight back, and so Frank slowly began to teach himself how to draw and paint again, but this time left handed! Absolutely extraordinary and as inspirational a story as was his original art career. Truly and amazing man.
So this is why we felt it was absolutely necessary to tell this man's story. If you look back into art history, it is cluttered with many artists who are as worthy of having their stories be told, but we didn't want to let Frank slip through the cracks. Hopefully in time, the other artists will also get their due.
BB: When did you decide to take this project on, and what are some of the goals you hoped to achieve with it?
LL: The first call I placed to the Frazetta's was in April of 1999, and you can bet I was more than a bit nervous. I pretty much spoke solely with Ellie for the better part of a year trying to convince her to let us proceed with the project, but she would never give us the official go-ahead. Looking back, I now realize she was waiting to see something tangible before saying "yes."
So in August of 1999, we attended the San Diego Comic Con and interviewed several artists and admirers of Frank's work, including Neal Adams, Bill Stout, Dr. Dave Winiewicz, Joe Jusko, Rich Larson, and Tom Gianni.
We combined this footage with images of Frank's artwork and cut together a 14-minute promo trailer, which was then sent on to the Frazetta's in February of 2000. I also dropped a copy in the mail to their son Frank Jr., with whom I had previously spoken.
About four days after mailing the tape, I was awakened in bed early one morning by a call from Frank Jr. He went on and on about how much he and his parents had enjoyed watching the tape, saying it actually brought them all to tears, so I was pleased that it affected them emotionally.
Once I hung up with Frank Jr., I immediately called Frank and Ellie to get their reactions. Ellie was also extremely complimentary, telling me that "many others have tried to do this before, but this is the first time it has ever been done in an artistic way and with such class." She then passed the phone over to Frank who graciously thanked me for sending the tape. I had to let him know that it was he who I should be thanking for inspiring me to do what I love.
So it was at that moment that the Frazetta's gave us their blessing to go ahead and produce the documentary. For them to give us permission over all the others makes me feel very fortunate. We never met face to face until June of 2000, a full year and two months after my initial phone call to them.
Regarding our goals for the project, I had set out to produce a documentary unlike any I had seen previously in terms of its aesthetic qualities, while at the same time still being able to accurately tell this man's life story through interviews with him, his family, and fellow artists.
Initially, we thought we would try to get someone like James Earl Jones or Charlton Heston to narrate, but I soon turned against the idea of narration in favor of letting the interviews tell the story. This is much harder to do successfully, as you have to make sure you word your questions so the answers provide the information you need, but I also feel it is a more genuine way of telling someone's life story instead of having a person read you a script.
Most often, documentaries are very static looking due to the fact you are interviewing subjects who are sitting still. I wanted to avoid the "talking head" syndrome by keeping the imagery continuously flowing across the screen so the viewer would never become bored. We also wanted the movie to best represent the feeling you get when standing in front of an original Frazetta painting, so we lit the subjects in a very dramatic fashion and incorporated an original orchestral score composed by Michael Goodis to really help set the mood. We hope we were successful.
BB: What kind of development process did the film need to go through before you actually began shooting? Were you working from a basic outline of what you wanted to get, or did you use a fairly tight shooting script as your guide?
LL: After discussing the project with friends of mine, all of whom would end up working in some capacity on the film, I immediately set about typing an outline. I believe I had a rough outline finished within a day, which I then emailed to those working on the project for feedback. It was restructured a bit and also refined, and eventually we added interview questions to the outline as well, so this gave us somewhat of a blueprint from which to work. Of course, it's always nice to have a plan going in, but you have to anticipate that much is going to change once you start shooting, as you may be taken in a different direction than originally intended. We eventually discovered that a documentary film is really constructed during the editing phase, as an incredible number of decisions must be made at that point.
Some shots were storyboarded and well thought out in advance, such as when Frank walks into one of his paintings, as well as the long steadicam shot, which enters the museum and continues throughout. So yes, some shots we definitely knew in advance we wanted to get, while others were more spur of the moment.
Much of this planning was aided by my first visit to the Frazetta estate in June of 2000, as I brought a Digital Video camera to shoot the surroundings and interior of the house, so I was able to use this footage later when drawing up shots. I also want to mention that there were several shots recommended to me by other members of the crew, which eventually ended up in the film. It would have been foolish of me not to at least try some of their suggestions, and fortunately it paid off.
However, like most shoots go, we weren't able to get every shot we had hoped and also still had some questions left to ask Frank when it came time to pack up and leave. Thankfully, we do feel we were able to get all of the necessary shots and information.
BB: What kind of difficulties did you encounter while setting all the necessary elements up? For instance, how easy was it to get the cooperation of the Frazettas? I ask this question because it's been reported that the artist is quite private, and rarely does interviews.
LL: As I mentioned previously, it did take a long time to convince them to allow us to do this documentary, and the tape we sent finally sealed the deal, but little did we know we would still have some obstacles to navigate. As you mentioned, Frank is indeed a very private individual, and at first there was talk from them that Frank did not want to be interviewed, so it was hard just convincing him that his interview was absolutely critical to the success of the project. He was mainly concerned that he would not be able to speak well due to his numerous strokes, and would come off sounding foolish. Of course, having spoken with Frank at great lengths by this point, I knew this wouldn't be the case, and in time he would agree to be interviewed. The only other taped interview of Frank of which I am aware is the one done for East Stroudsburg University, circa mid 1980's, which appears in the film. Other than that he's never before appeared on camera, so we all knew how special our documentary was going to be for this reason alone.
At first Frank was a great sport about us recording his every move on tape, but he would quickly tire of constantly having a camera in front of him.
BB: What kind of benefits did this kind of direct access to your subject offer you? And what about drawbacks; were there any unforeseen hurdles thrown up by this closeness, like loss of objectivity or glossing over of controversies?
LL: I was surprised to discover how quickly we were accepted and made to feel welcome. Normally, you must spent a great deal of time with your subjects building up that trust, but the Frazettas were pretty much willing to open up their home to us. It allowed us to peer into the daily lives of the Frazetta family, and also gave us incredible access to his large body of work, including many pieces that hang in the Frazetta household but have never been published. There are also roomfuls of paintings and old comic pages in the upstairs bedrooms that Ellie allowed us to go through. We were able to record Frank drawing and painting in his studio with his left hand, so that in itself was incredibly special.
Of course when the Frazettas open up as they did and allow you to gain such intimate access to them, they also trust you to not reveal any negative elements that may surface, so we had to be careful about what stayed and what would be left out. As a documentary filmmaker, you want to include everything, but at the same time respect your subject's privacy. I also was conscious about not turning the film into a reality TV show, as this would have brought the class meter way down.
Over the years, I've heard certain stories that I would have liked to have been able to investigate further to discover their validity, but to be truthful to the Frazetta story, we could really only include the subject matter Frank himself was willing to speak of, as otherwise they could easily be dismissed as rumors.
We did find it difficult to get many of those we interviewed to criticize Frank's work, as we were attempting to cover other ways in which people view his paintings. This became more apparent during the editing phase, and a concern began to grow that we would be criticized ourselves for making the documentary too one-sided, so we set out to find people willing to offer their critical observations. Aside from many who used the criticism that they wish Frank would have produced more work, only one individual was willing to go further and speak more critically about Frank's place in art history, which fortunately helped to balance the film.
BB: Will you be doing any special screenings of the film, whether at comic cons or film festivals, anytime soon?
Any future screenings will be listed on the front page of our website at www.cinemachine.net.
BB: Do you plan to try to have the film distributed through the normal channels for screening at cineplexes across the world, or will you be releasing it directly to video and DVD?
LL: We have a sales representative who is attempting to get us distribution through both the foreign and domestic markets. We presently have a number of interested parties, but no offers have been made yet.
We would really like to see the film get a limited theatrical run in the major markets before it is released onto DVD. Speaking of which, we will not be releasing the DVD ourselves as we did the VHS, as whomever acquires the theatrical rights will also be purchasing the DVD rights, so they will determine its release date. We will, however, be providing all of the extra material which will take up an entire DVD of its own, so the final product will be a collector's edition 2-disc set.
BB: Well, how can our readers get their very own copy of Frazetta: Painting With Fire?
LL: They can visit our webstore by going to where the tape can be purchased for $19.99. Additionally, they can also pick up a very cool Death Dealer shirt and movie posters.
Frazetta: Painting With Fire is due in comic shops December, 2004.
To find out more about Frazetta: Painting With Fire, or to purchase a copy of this great documentary, go to www.cinemachine.net.
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