Behind Borgman: Poster Process with Jay Shaw

Below is a conversation I had with designer Jay Shaw about his experience working on his Mondo poster for Drafthouse Films state-side release of Borgman. I had planned this to sit alongside my own process piece detailing my experience putting together the theatrical one-sheet for the same film, but that’s a ways off. So if you’re into process chat, this might be the thing for you.

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Brandon Schaefer:  Do you think Down and Out in Beverly Hills is the 1980s version of Borgman?

Jay Shaw:  HAHA. Yes. Of course I do. Holy shit dude yes.

BS:  You suggested I watch it but I still haven’t seen it.

JS:  I never thought about it but it really is. A vagabond infiltrates a well-to-do family’s life and turns it upside down. Down and Out takes a decidedly more new-wave-wacky-comedy approach to the story, but it’s the same story. Brandon watch the damn thing already.

BS:  Yeah yeah. The poster for it makes it look like a bit of a fun romp.

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JS:  It’s deeper than that. Way deeper. Much like Borgman it sticks to the roof of your mouth, in a good way. I think it was the first R rated thing to come out of Disney.

BS: So…not the goofy comedy that the poster makes it look like it is?

JS:  No, not at all. I mean it’s goofy but it’s goofy in the same way a thing like Planes, Trains and Automobiles is goofy. There’s much more underneath than chuckles. It’s also pretty dark.

BS:  Do you think the poster should have reflected that at all? Or is it fine the way it is. I mean, obviously people are trying to sell a flick with Midler, Dreyfuss, and Nolte.

JS:  It’s about an incredibly charismatic homeless man (Nolte) who finesses his way into a wealthy family’s life and kind of dissects it from the inside. I think the only way to sell the movie is with a poster like that. If you did a poster based on the thematic current of the film it’d be very weird looking. This wasn’t the 70s where you could get away with that. This was the 80s. Posters were awful.

BS:  There are some really charming 80s posters. Maybe that’s just nostalgia talking but…

JS:  It is. I mean yes, there are some gorgeous posters from the 80s. But for the most part they’re very neutered.

BS:  Sure. A lot of them were focused on putting something out there, regardless of whether or not it was truthful to the source material. Is that part of a poster’s job? Showing an audience a certain vision of what a film is, but not necessarily one that’s in step with the actual narrative?

JS:  Well the posters job is to put asses in theater seats. So if featuring an actor’s giant mug will do it or positioning an existential meditation on wealth and excess as a goofball comedy romp does that, then it’s job well done. It’s a lie but that’s kind of the heart of advertising. Nobody wants the truth, they want to be tickled.

BS:  Yeah. Sometimes you have to doll things up a bit if you want everyone to file in for the freakshow.

JS:  Exactly. Once you’ve got their ticket money it doesn’t matter if you lied to get it from them. Movie posters have been bullshitting people since day one.

BS:  How does that fit in when you work on things?

JS:  Well it fits in if it needs to. If a studio says “this is what we want to communicate” then my job is to communicate that message. Not to dig for the truth of the thing. Luckily my studio work is for smaller independent films so their marketing eye is different. You’ve got the same clients I do, you’d find that to be the case? Like does anyone ever say “Hey Brandon, we know this movie looks cheap, but we’d like the poster to make it look expensive.”

BS:  Every project comes with its own set of objectives, I guess. But rolling back a bit, the idea of posters doing a singular job, of getting butts in the seats. That’s the mandate with one-sheets. What’s the big hurdle when tackling the Mondo version of stuff like that? Borgman, in this case.

JS:  I think it’s just presenting a film most Mondo fans have never seen before. They love when their favorite artist tackles a movie they’ve seen a hundred times. The trick is to get those same fans to respond to something entirely new.

BS:  I remember when we first talked about it, we both went into it with ideas of in some way incorporating the levels of the house.

JS:  Yeah that was interesting. We almost had the same ideas a few times. Luckily we know each other so we get to share early concepts.

BS:  Neither of us got that one off, though. I mean, I’m not sure what your sketches were like. If you tried it or not. You’d mentioned his head with the levels…

JS:  Well, the problem with my original idea is that it didn’t work well for the architecture in the film. I wanted to build a house out of the main character’s head. This would’ve worked if I could do a more traditional style home with lots of floors and a taper toward the top. In the film the house is very modern and flat. Also I had trouble convincing myself the design made a lot of sense. Why are there people living inside his head? Wouldn’t he be living in theirs? In the end the “trojan horse” concept made much more sense.

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BS:  I think it’s a clever observation, because that’s really what winds up happening: he appears to be one thing, but there’s something else inside that isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

JS:  A thing inside another thing, that’s pretty much every poster I ever make. With yours I remember you kept trying to figure out how to get them in his coat. How’d you work that out?

BS:  Ha. I took the test shots of myself in the coat and tried comping everything together but it wasn’t happening

JS:  Oh right that’s you modeling the coat huh?

BS:  No one else would do it for free.

JS:  I hope that crazy background is your yard

BS:  It’s gradients and a few different sets of trees that I hacked together from some old National Geographics. The original photo is just me standing in front of a white wall. I stuck one of those on Instagram awhile back.

JS:  Nobody looks at Instagram, we just post things for others to see.

BS:  Haha. No one needs to see my dopey mug in a thing about process. It’s better off there. Circling back a bit, you were talking about the differences between designing a poster for a film with a history versus something like Borgman. Obviously you don’t have to approach it like a traditional one-sheet, but I imagine there’s some similarity in how you tackle it? Because it still is for something that’s fresh out of the gate without a lot of iconography attached to it

JS:  Well you’ve got to communicate the essence of the film. You can’t rely on familiar imagery to do your job for you. There’s a bit more freedom aesthetically with a Mondo poster than a one sheet though. This is meant to be the art print, not the primary piece of advertising. Subjects like Borgman are great for me though. It’s a movie I genuinely dig and it’s weird enough to where I can get away with quite a bit artistically. If I were doing a poster for The Goonies I’d instantly be hamstrung by the fact that the movie has a ton of art already out there.

BS:  Right; the ground is fairly fertile. Your Borgman piece had a few big changes from where it started to where it ended up. The big things I remember were the colors, the title treatment, and the hands reaching out of the fire in his face. Why’d you lose the hands? And why the change in color scheme?

JS:  The color scheme was lifted directly from the film. In the bedroom there’s a really cool blue curtain or wallpaper or something. It seemed like a decent background choice. Yellow compliments. The hands were one decoration too many. It seemed like the message was being confused. It’s already a confusing poster, no need to make it absurd. Yours didn’t seem to change as much. Once you nailed the main image it seemed like small tweaks here and there.

BS:  It took very little time to get the idea and put it together without it falling apart, and that never happens. And just I really dug the movie. I know you can pop a thing out in a few hours which is, whew. I envy. Although I do realize you also take weeks to finish certain projects.

JS:  Yeah the movie really is great. I hope people go out and see it. Anyway, it really depends on the thing. If the idea is there and the execution is simple then I’m golden. Sometimes I’ve got shit for ideas and it takes weeks. Sometimes a cool idea requires an absurd amount of labor and it’ll take weeks. My favorite pieces are the quick ones though. The “my kid could do that” stuff. Yeah, if you’re kid were a middle aged asshole with an affinity for European nightmare drawings.

BS:  How do you decide how it’ll look? Is it just something that evolves naturally, or are there conscious decisions made along the way? Or is it a matter of working off of techniques that you’re comfortable with?

JS:  No no that’s something from the start. I just did that Friday the 13th soundtrack for Waxwork and it had to be painted. It fit the aesthetic of the film and the original advertising. Borgman needed to be kind of a weird photographic / illustrative / graphic mishmash. It fits the chaotic vibe of the film. Do you just kinda let that stuff evolve with the process or do you set out with an aesthetic in mind?

BS:  Well, I know what, at the very very least, I’m capable of. And a lot of times that factors in. If something says “I need to be painted” then I figure out a way around that or look for a sharper idea, so that it’s less about how it looks, and more about whatever it’s saying. The legs of the thing come from the wit and the message rather than my aesthetics. I’m most comfortable aiming for that. Because I just cannot for the life of me, you know, paint.

JS:  Haha and honestly it’s a pain in the ass. You kill yourself making a thing just to have it look bad next to someone who’s a better painter than you are. If you’ve got a good idea and it works with a simple image then the idea is what’s carrying the thing. Very rarely does your good idea have a better idea looming over it.

BS:  Yeah. And the great thing about a sharp idea is that you can work at getting that while not sitting in a chair. You can sharpen that thing anywhere. Craft heavy stuff, there’s a lot of massaging happening while your butt is planted in a seat. Don’t get me wrong: I love that type of work to death. It’s just that a lot of it isn’t my wheelhouse. But I think we could stand to see more of that stuff around. You’re able to pull it off and hit good ideas at the same time.

JS:  That’s the goal. I really do prefer it when the idea is art of the thing though. I love looking at beautiful images but I REALLY love being blown away by great concepts.

BS:  Yeah. There’s a real art to that all in itself. I think we’ve got a good solid chunk here. I’ll probably spare you of this for Nothing Bad Can Happen.

JS:  Just edit out my stuff and make up a smart person

BS:  I’m going to translate it into Japanese and back to English again. It’ll be a ride.

JS:  Rad.

Borgman is now playing in select theaters. Visit Drafthouse Films for information on cities and showtimes. Jay Shaw makes fancy things, many of which you can find at kingdomofnonsense.com

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