We talk with the director of FAR OUT ISN’T FAR ENOUGH, the winner of Best Documentary at JDIFF this year.
Charting the highly eventful life of 82-year-old, Bantry-based children’s author and (highly) graphic artist Tomi Ungerer has inspired one of the year’s best documentaries. Paul Byrne emails ten life-changing, tooth-loosening questions to Brad Bernstein, the creator of FAR OUT ISN’T FAR ENOUGH: THE TOMI UNGERER STORY.
When did you first realise that young Mr. Ungerer had a life story destined for the big screen?
BRAD BERNSTEIN: I realized it about halfway through the opening paragraph of the first article I ever read about Tomi. I’ll never forget it, it was July 27th, 2008 and the New York Times piece was titled: Watch The Children, That Subversive is Back and in that paragraph Tomi is describing being whisked away by some G-Men during the 1950’s McCarthyism era in America. Whether the story was true or not mattered little to me; it was obvious Mr. Ungerer knew how to tell a story. And literally as I read paragraph by paragraph I knew that if I could just get in contact with this artist and convince him to work with me, that we’d have one hell of a film.
How long did it take you to convince Mr. Ungerer that he had a life story destined for the big screen?
BB: Oh man, it didn’t take any convincing! Tomi knows his story is interesting and spans many of the seminal moments of the 20th century, from Nazi occupation to post-war devastation of Europe through the turbulent 1960’s in America and so on. When I sent his museum an initial treatment and it finally made its way into his hands, I think I received a letter in the mail about two weeks later which stated: “Call me any time-but early.” And off we went.
Here is a man who is happy to talk about not only the ups but the downs, giving us a nightmares-and-all documentary. How much of that was your fine work? Or did you just have to switch the camera on?
BB: Really, all we had to do was turn the camera on, roll tape and let Tomi do his thing. He’s a true character and he’s polished his stories and storytelling ability over 80-plus years so the film was ours to screw up, if you will.
Were there any areas that were out of bounds?
BB: In fact, Tomi was somewhat reluctant to discuss details as it related to his sex slaves and he was also reluctant to discuss the pivotal moment that caused him to basically lose all of his publishing contracts in the States. It took multiple sit-down interviews to get him to go there, but ultimately he realized that both of these topics are essential if someone is looking to understand the full breadth of his story and how all the parts of his psyche and career are interrelated. And so, after constant pestering, he relented. But if you notice in the film, he was really agitated when he was describing that moment where he defended himself at a librarians conference in New York City. That was partially because he was remembering the setting, but also partly because I wouldn’t let him off the hook!
The use of animated sequences in live action films hasn’t been this popular since Mary Poppins. A decision dictated by your subject’s work, or just a personal preference when it comes to finding a substitute for unavailable footage?
BB: Of course, a decision dictated by our subject’s work. Tomi has been creating art since he was three years old and thanks to an adoring and prescient mother, this art still exists today in its original form in Tomi’s museum. So when you hear about Nazi occupation from the perspective of a 10-year old, and you have the imagery that was created by this 10-year old during that time period, you’d be remiss in your duties as a filmmaker to not only show it but to bring it to life. Moreover, Tomi’s lines are so fluid that they really do lend themselves to movement. Now all this said, Tomi, rightfully so, was concerned with how we’d animate his artwork and actually wanted to approve all of the animated sequences in advance. We refused and ultimately showed him the animations for the first time when he watched-down the entire picture.
How has Tomi reacted to the film? He gets emotional on-camera; did he get emotional off-camera too?
BB: One of the greatest days of my career was when Rick Cikowski (FAR OUT’s co-producer/editor/animator) and I flew to Strasbourg, France for Tomi’s 80th birthday. We arrived at Tomi’s apartment in Strasbourg and sat around a TV in his living room with he and his family and we screened the film. I don’t know who was more nervous, them or us?! Not only did we have to take a few liberties here and there with Tomi’s story to make the film as entertaining as it could be, but we also were showing an artist the mutation of his artwork. So many things could have gone wrong. Three years of work could have been lost if Tomi or any of his family members had a problem with what we created. But about two minutes into the film Tomi grabbed my arm and smiled and remarked how wonderful it was and within five minutes he was welling up with tears. It was a remarkable and unforgettable moment for Rick and I.
Part Robert Crumb, part Maurice Sendak, part Spike Milligan – how do you describe your subject to strangers?
BB: I describe Tomi as the most nuanced, complicated, genuine, intellectually astute, anxiety-ridden-man-child I know. His mind is so damn complex that it’s impossible to ascribe any one personality trait to him. You kind of just need to be around him and experience him to understand him.
Ungerer’s love for Ireland, and all that rugged beauty that makes up the bulk of West Cork – were you keen not to come over too Bord Failte in those scenes?
BB: Well, nary a percentage of my blood is Irish nor have I ever lived in Ireland, so I wasn’t worried about looking like a homer. The truth is, in my eyes, Tomi has romanticized Ireland and he truly does live in that headspace and so why would I tone down his love for the country in the film? This is Tomi’s story in his own words and through his own eyes, and so if it feels like the Irish Tourism Board has afforded Tomi an honorarium to say nice things, well, so be it.
What sparked the documentary? Tomi’s return to children’s books? An obsession on your part with all that Fornicon and Erotoscope…?
BB: It was that New York Times article I mentioned earlier. That’s what really sparked this film and made me aware of Tomi and his story. So the fact that we make long-form television for a living combined with this idea is what set us on our way.
Tomi describes himself as an “archivist of human absurdity”. Which is pretty much the role of the documentary filmmaker, right? Or perhaps you’re keen to eventually move on from This Is It, Real Change and Jazz And The Philharmonic to work in fiction…?
BB: Right, everything we create at my company Corner of the Cave Media has elements of absurdity. I mean, when I ask Justin Bieber for his take on why education and teachers are important, is that not absurd? But as Tomi says so eloquently in the film, the world is absurd so how can you not document it if it’s pervasive?
FAR OUT ISN’T FAR ENOUGH: THE TOMI UNGERER STORY is out this Friday, December 13th. Ungerer and Bernstein will be present for a Q&A after the evening screening this Friday, at the IFI.
Words: Paul Byrne