“MR. FISH: CARTOONING FROM THE DEEP END is an in-depth look at the artist Mr. Fish, who is a brilliant, outrageous political cartoonist with a biting sense of satire whose work is dangerous in the best sense. He is a not ready for prime time artist, and the film is both a very personal documentary about him, while at the same time it’s a film about the death of political cartooning and how cartoonists like him can no longer make a living at their craft. Basically it starts off as a comedy and turns into a tragedy.” Director Pablo Bryant on MR. FISH which screens at #HotDocs25!
Great to have you here at HotDocs! Are you going to be attending your screenings?
Yes, I will be at my first two screenings doing a Q&A, and luckily the subject of our film, Mr. Fish will be at the first screening as well! It is our Canadian Premiere. HotDocs has been like lore to me. People say its the Best Documentary Festival, but you have to hike hill and glenn to get to this magical place called Toronto. We are very happy to be here.
Tell me more about your process of getting this documentary project together!
The process of making this film was in some ways very organic. I discovered the artist and fell in love with his work because it cut so cleanly through what passes as political discourse, and because it was hilariously funny to me too. Mr. Fish and I quickly developed a sense of each other and I began filming almost right away. That was in 2012. It was a passion project, a project done out of love, some grant money, some of my own money, an indiegogo campaign, plus some more of my money, and here we are. Sounds so simple. Follow your heart; it will only cost you everything but you’ll be glad for it. Obviously I’m skipping over some essential things. One is that I am a working cameraman, and I owned a lot of my own gear, camera, lights, audio equipment etc, so I was able to start shooting with as much money as it took to get me to Philadelphia. Our Indiegogo campaign raised enough for me to get an editor who was equally captivated by Mr. Fish’s art and the possibility of making a movie about a dangerous artist. Also that my producer Ted Collins came on early and has worked hard to get this film done. It takes a nuthouse.
How long was your process from beginning to end and did you have any challenges during the filming process?
I began filming in 2012, I thought I was done is 2016, but America took a fantastic right turn into the Twilight Zone that year, and then two really lovely woman reached out to Mr. Fish about using his art at the Woman’s March in DC. They wanted to put an image he created on a big banner and march it through the streets, and as a visual person making a film about an important visual artist, the idea of his art being marched through the streets among tens of thousands of people was too good to pass up. The challenges are in some ways just part of the process for most documentary filmmakers. What will the story of this film be? Halfway through I began to wonder if I was crazy for making the film, precisely because his work is dangerous and not ready for prime time, and uncommercial, but it turns out that people really are desperately hungry for an artist who is scathingly funny while being being brutally honest. We did it on a shoestring, so that was a constant challenge, especially when we got into the heavy post costs. And of course the amount of time it took was its own challenge, because it’s just difficult to sustain the effort for so long. That’s why people say you gotta love it, you gotta love your subject.
How long did post-production take and editing the final product together?
Post production was in fits and spurts. We had a cut in about seven weeks, but I ended up shooting more and cutting the additional material in myself. But my editor Adam Lichtenstein had built a really solid foundation for me to add a few scenes onto. Mr. Fish did some animation for the beginning and we found some people to do some motion graphics work on some of his art, a little bit of time passed and we eventually pushed to lock the film and get the color and mix done. So overall, the post was stretched out over a year.
Throughout the whole process, what kept you going while making this feature? What drove you? How much coffee are we talking about here?
In the beginning I was just shooting and trying to gather material and see where the story took me. I did that for a few years before a deep sense of doubt started to burble in my gut. Because I wasn’t sure how it would all come together. But when I met my editor Adam, and he looked at the material and he felt like we could do something I began to think that maybe I wasn’t crazy for wanting to make this film. Then once we had a cut, and I could see how people were responding to the material, that the lightbulbs inside their heads were being turned on by Mr. Fish and his bravery as an artist, it began to feel real. Now I think I might actually be growing younger every time I sit with an audience as they watch the film and engage and laugh and go through all kinds of emotions. Its extremely satisfying.
A very technical question, but what kind of cameras and editing equipment did you use to capture this documentary?
When I started in 2012 I owned the Sony EX1, which was one of the premiere documentary cameras at the time. I eventually got a Sony A7S, with some canon lenses that I used for the second half of shooting. We cut on Final Cut Pro 7, which was still being used a few years ago, but now, when I say FCP7, I feel like I’m describing how I rode here in the back of a chariot.
What excites you the most about presenting this to HotDocs audiences?
Its our first time screening outside of the US, so I’m obviously curious about that. But Canada gave us SCTV and some great comics, so I don’t think our film will be too outrageous for them. Really looking forward to blowing some Canadian minds.
After the movie shows at HotDocs, where is the movie going next? Are there any other festivals coming up?
Yes, we are going to Be at Doclands Film Fest, and the San Fran Doc Fest, and we are waiting on a few more. We just finished a little festival tour, picking up a Special Jury prize at the Ashland Film Fest.
How do you feel with the theatrical experience versus streaming debate for documentaries? Are you okay with the movie going to streaming/digital only, or do you strive for the theatrical experience?
I like all of the new venues that are possible for filmmakers now, but I don’t want that to mean the end of theatrical. Art experienced with other people is very different than art experienced alone. Especially a film that has thought provoking humor in it. Our festival experience, the experience we have with an audience that is seeing our film for the first time is delightful and electric almost every time, and people come out talking about the film. Some of what we explore in the film is the death of political cartooning, and so the question of what it means to have art as part of our public discourse is actually central to the film itself. We need more communal experience and not less.
What is the one piece of advice you would say to anyone looking into making a documentary short or feature for the first time?
Keep going. You are going to feel inadequate, you might actually be inadequate in reality, you might not have the ability or skill, but keep going. If there is something in the subject matter that feels important to you, if you keep going you will find out if you are right or not, and in the meantime, you will learn how to make your film.
And finally, what is your all time favorite documentary feature film?
That is an extremely unfair question. This is the SOPHIE’S CHOICE of questions. We watched CRUMB because we had to because it was and is so brilliant, but my heart goes to DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE, which I think is a masterpiece.
Be sure to follow MR. FISH online at www.mrfishmovie.com!
For more information on showtimes and HotDocs visit www.hotdocs.ca!