SXSW ’12 Interview: Wayne White and Neil Berkeley Explain Why, In Spite of Their Pretty Doc, “Beauty is Embarrassing”

A pop cultural icon is revealed in a new documentary about the Southerner with a skewed and shrewd sense of humor who found a career after "Pee Wee's Playhouse"...

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All our SXSW 2012 coverage can be found here.

When he was first approached for the documentary "Beauty is Embarrassing," Wayne White had to give it some thought.

"I didn't think my life was dramatic enough," said White, who will explain later why that was. "But that was quickly overridden by the showoff part of me."

That may sound like bragging, but White has plenty to show off and even if he didn't think his life story was deserving of feature-length documentary, director Neil Berkeley supplies more than enough evidence during his first feature to demonstrate how the offbeat artist has brightened the lives of others with his work. In fact, White is a perfect documentary subject, warm and sharply funny with a portfolio of art that's been incredibly popular even if the man behind it isn't all that well-known. Yet "Beauty is Embarrassing" aims to change that, charting White's journey from growing up in a house full of colorful tchotkes in Sand Mountain, Alabama to ultimately moving to the big city to decorate the set and design puppets for "Pee Wee's Playhouse."

If that was all there was to White's career, it would be enough to set a generation of creative minds free, as well as provide fodder to spare for its own feature. (As it stands, the midsection of “Beauty” may be the most definitive onscreen account to date of the iconic Paul Reubens show with rare footage of “Flocked Box Theater,” the off-hours and off-color show the puppeteers would perform to amuse themselves.) But the film pays tribute to all of White’s passions, from his family including wife and fellow artist Mimi Pond to his love of animation and large-scale projects such as a delightfully ridiculous George Jones head that sat in Rice University for an exhibit, to his newfound calling as a champion of humor in fine art who paints droll statements such as “Fuck You Invasion” over pastorals he finds in thrift stores.

White says to the camera at one point about his artistic dexterity, “I want to take this painting and see if I could do a sculpture. I want to take this sculpture and make a set.” And it’s at that point, less than 15 minutes into the film that one realizes White isn’t just capable of anything, but that he has helped mold popular culture while doing the same work on any of his sculptures or oversized puppets that have appeared in videos for Peter Gabriel and Smashing Pumpkins and ads for Snapple and Old Spice. During the SXSW Film Festival, White and Berkeley were gracious enough to speak about how they shaped the story of a true multimedia artist into an exceptionally entertaining yarn.

WayneWhitePaintingsWhen Neil approached you to make a film about your life, was it something you were immediately interested in?

Wayne White: No, I wasn’t. I thought I was too boring myself because most of the documentaries I’ve seen have been very dramatic and there’s something traumatic – somebody’s murdered somebody or somebody’s been molested and there’s a horrible crisis in our culture. It’s all about crisis and danger and negativity. I just thought my life is not that dramatic, but Neil found plenty of drama there and everybody’s life is dramatic if you dig deep enough. But no initially, I didn’t think I was worthy of a documentary to tell you the truth. I thought it over a couple of days and I changed my mind. [laughs]

Neil, what made you feel Wayne’s life was worthy of a film?

Neil Berkeley: If you look at the body of work, anyone that sees what he does knows that there’s a lot of story there. But I also knew him and I knew the personality, his family and that there’s a very dynamic, funny, entertaining guy there. That’s why I knew it’d be good. I’d talk to people that are in documentaries who would say there’s not a lot there because no one knows who he is and I would talk to people who knew him and they would say, you should.

How did you meet?

NB: We met at a design studio. He was drawing Priceline commercials and I was interning. But I actually helped you install your first gallery show.

WW: That’s right. Neil popped up a lot of times in my life, but we did meet at a production company where Neil was interning and I was doing some animation and graphics. Then I started using Neil as an assistant and doing art installations at galleries and Neil even helped me on the Snapple commercials that I did back in 2003 or something like that. We’ve known each other for at least 12 years, I’d say.

WayneWhiteBeautyIsEmbarrassing1Neil, at what point did you start developing the film?

NB: It happened pretty quick. I had a little professional crisis. I had a business that dissolved and I was kind of a mess emotionally. I needed something to do that wasn’t my day job. And I’d always known Wayne would be a great subject…

WW: And the book had just come out.

NB: The book [“Wayne White: Maybe Now I'll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve,” a 400-page collection of sketches, paintings and other art] had just come out and he was taking off. It was being very advantageous on my part. The book was successful and the fine art was very successful and I just realized that I should do this right now. I bought a camera and I took it to Houston and started following him around.

Wayne, circling back to when you were considering making this film, this comes at an interesting point in your career where your artistic focus has shifted. Knowing the artist’s mentality of not wanting to show something off before it’s done, was the fact you were embarking on this new career something you might’ve initially been protective of?

WW: True. The artist is protective of his process and his studio is sort of a sanctuary and all that, but I’m a little more open-minded about those issues because I’ve got a lot of ham in me from my years as a puppeteer and as a performer and I have a knack for communicating to people from the stage. I just do. I’m a hambone at heart, so that’s another reason why I decided to do the documentary because I can perform, I can project and communicate to people with my voice and my ideas. I’m not the typical introverted artist in that respect. I did have concerns about it being a little intrusive into my private life, but Neil was respectful of all those issues, so that was never an issue actually and as far as being a showoff, I was ready to be a showoff. That’s me. I’m being honest. All artists are showoffs. Most artists are too cool to admit it.

WayneWhiteLargoShowThe backbone of the movie seems to be the Largo performance and various other stops where Wayne is able to tell his story in front of an audience in his own words as well as a little banjo pickin’ and a slideshow. Was that something Wayne was doing before you made the film?

NB: We always knew we would use that because when I met Wayne, the book was out and he was doing a slideshow on the road where he would show scenes from his life with pictures and just talk to it, talk with the crowd. He would sit and it was really boring and dull. [WW laughs] But he didn’t want it to be boring. He always said, “If I’m going to make people sit for an hour, I’m going to entertain them”. So he scripted it, he added jokes, added the banjo and eventually put on a suit and got onstage, so it was organic the way it happened in that we let it happen as much as it was going to go.

WW: Neil did encourage me to make it into a scripted stage show. Like he said, it was just kind of a regular old rambling artist talk that everybody does when they go visit universities. But it was Neil’s idea to tighten it up and make it into an entertaining one-man stage show. That became the core of the movie. It was all for the movie, really.

NB: And it’s great…people like the movie, but the stage show, I hope that becomes a part of his career now. That stage show should live on as much as this documentary should.

WayneWhitePuppetObviously, Wayne’s wife Mimi Pond contributes a wonderful animated comic strip in the film detailing how they met and the end credits clearly are marked by Wayne’s handiwork, so when he is the subject of your film, how much do you want to involve him and others close to him in the actual making of it?

NB: I wanted to represent him well. I own a design company that does motion graphics, so I always knew there would be a lot of animation. And when you look at his work, even though it’s a still image, it’s alive. It’s animated. It needed to be brought to life and I always knew I wanted to do that and the Mimi Pond cartoon — she drew those cells and we animated them. The end credits, Wayne actually art directed that. He drew those characters. He drew a lot of the characters and he drew a lot of the clouds and a lot of the imagery. He kind of guided us through it because I wanted it to feel organic and tangible, something that you could touch and feel. The idea of the end credits is that it’s this thing he built on his table in his studio because everything looks real and has a texture and I wanted it to feel like his art coming to life, so he was…whether he was there telling us what to do or whether I was just looking at what he did and trying to be respectful of that, he was very influential.

Wayne, one of my other favorite moments in the film is when your first grade teacher comes up to you at a book signing. Did filming this feel like an episode of “This is Your Life” at times?

WW: That’s a perfect description of that. It was a “This is Your Life” moment because that was a true surprise. It was captured live and it was real when she surprised me like that and that was one of the many highs of doing it was being reunited with my past like that. I would’ve never met her again probably if it wasn’t for the movie, so they facilitated all that. They went down to Tennessee and dug up my past for me and that was very interesting. Mostly very satisfying actually because it’s something I never would’ve pursued on my own.

"Beauty is Embarrassing" does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play SXSW two more times on March 14th at 4:45 p.m. at the Canon Screening Room and March 15th at 1:30 p.m. at the Vimeo Theater.

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