SXSW 2023 Interview: Dan Covert on Looking Outside the Lines in “Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life”

While most filmmakers wonder if their subject is interesting enough, Dan Covert had to start asking himself what he had gotten into during the making of “Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life” when the multidisciplinary artist he was profiling might’ve been too interesting.

“The blessing and the curse of Geoff is he’s a moving target,” said Covert of the man behind the coolest face for your Apple Watch and the title design for Spike Jonze’s films. “He’s so prolific. He’s drawing, he’s animating, he’s doing title sequences, he’s doing poetry – so the moment I would open a door and think I was finished, a new door would open up and even since I finished the film, I’ve heard him talk about things that I’d never [heard before], so it’s been this great process of seeing everything and being like, “What’s the most important?”

Covert’s answer is unusually insightful as he takes a full view of McFetridge’s life that traverses both a long journey from Alberta, Canada to Atwater Village in Los Angeles and across artistic mediums as “Drawing a Life” considers not only the artist at hand but the evolution of a career as McFetridge follows his creative curiosities in a variety of different realms while finding ways to remain connected to it as he starts a family and weighs his work’s commercial potential. Even if it doesn’t seem like it at first, the large-scale faceless and colorful figures adorning the sides of buildings that have become a source of ubiquity for McFetridge can start to be seen as a deeply personal expression given his generally low public profile and his towering impact on the culture, with not only Jonze and their mutual co-conspirator Sofia Coppola speaking to his seemingly endless ingenuity, but architects and authors, all of whom his work has touched.

With “Drawing a Life” making its world premiere at SXSW this weekend, Covert spoke about how he could invest himself in making the biography and getting creative to match a person who’s never painted by the numbers.

How did this come about? I know your company Dress Code has been documenting Geoff’s work at least since 2015.

We’ll take it back even further. I went to graphic design school in the early 2000s when Geoff was really making his name for himself, so that was when I first became aware of the work. A friend of mine who owned a gallery in 2015 that was doing a show of Geoff’s, [said] “Hey, maybe you could do a little video.” That’s when we first met and spent a day together and I pride myself on my ability to get stories very succinctly. At the end of the day, Geoff performed on camera in a way that I’d never seen him perform the rest of the day and [I thought], there’s a bigger story here to tell that I’m just starting to crack the surface on, so we met in 2015, and then we got contracted in 2019 to do a short on him for award he was winning for the AIGA and that’s when I pitched something bigger. There’s like 30 million shorts about Geoff online and they’re great, but you can only tell so much story in three minutes, so I pitched him on this idea of using that AIGA video as a little test of us working together over four or five days and seeing where it could go from there. And he never really said yes or no. He was intrigued by the idea, but that was the beginning of the relationship.

That sounds a lot like what Andrew Paynter, the photographer who’s been documenting him for years says in the film. Do these things evolve with him?

Andrew and his relationship was one of the real reasons that I felt like he might be open to something larger. Andrew had posted a lot of images of he had shot of Geoff on Instagram and Geoff had reposted them, so I’d seen these over the years and there was a level of intimacy that I’d never really seen before in any of the documentation of Geoff in the short videos that I’d seen. He was with his kids and you’d watch him put them to bed. There was much more of his life beyond this initial [immediate impression of] “ I’m an artist, here’s my work.” So I saw their dynamic and when I initially talked to Geoff about the project, he was like, “Maybe Andrew could be involved,” and [I thought], that’s amazing because Andrew was the reason that I was inspired to even approach him about this.

Also I think Geoff is aware that if he doesn’t document his process and his work, life might not, so he’s pretty savvy in understanding that there’s a larger story to tell and he wants to start to tell that story. And I never could have made this film without Andrew’s photographs because there’s a period of 17 years prior to the four years I’ve been involved in this of them shooting images together, so I had this trove of archival that has a level of intimacy that you could never capture.

Just generally, when you have access to drawings as early as grade school, what’s it like digging into this?

It was a slow process because a lot of that came from his mom and I had to really describe to her what I was doing. All the Super 8 stuff came from his mom too and when I initially approached her, I was like, “Do you have a lot of archival?” And she was like, “No, we don’t have anything really” because she thought I meant iPhone videos, but she [said] “Oh, I have this box of Super 8, “You don’t want this, do you?” [laughs]

Then with Geoff, he trusted me, but I don’t think he really trusted me [until] year two or three to just [leave] me the studio for a few days and he’d be like, ”Here’s all my sketchbooks.” And some of them were dating back to when he was a kid and there was like a level of angst and intensity in some of those drawings that I’d never seen because he’s such a cool, calm, collected guy. A lot of his art isn’t that dark. There’s some undertones of it, but I got to see the whole gamut and you’re peeking behind the curtain by seeing this stack of sketchbooks six feet high. He sketches incessantly, so I was basically able to go inside of his brain and see how his brain had changed from junior high all the way up until [being a] 50-plus-year-old man and this was a whole other level of getting to know him in a nonverbal way that added a lot of dimension. At that point in time in making the film, there wasn’t a lot of this inner struggle and I wasn’t really able to get there until I unlocked and saw those sketchbooks. Then I was able to go back and re-interview him and be like, “What’s going on in your brain, man? This is stuff we haven’t talked about before.”

Originally, I was drawn in by the artwork, but then I realized more that there was this story about the evolution of a man and how he approaches life, and it was a much bigger universal story. I could have made this tiny art doc that like all the art heads would have loved, but I saw this avenue to tell this larger story about how a person can live a life and use that as a conduit to then have people fall in love with Geoff’s art.

There seems to be a piece of art to connect to any given situation – what was it like to figure out how to present his art in all its facets?

Because he is so prolific and his art deals with so many themes and is so clever, it was easy once we had the story and we had all these amazing tools in our arsenal. I was a graphic designer and then an animator and now I‘m a director, so he was able to give me all this amazing content and I was able to leverage all my backgrounds to figure out where that content can go to help tell his story. To use Andrew’s photographs and Geoff’s art in making a film are invaluable tools that not every filmmaker is lucky to have.

[The animation actually] was something I was nervous about because Geoff is very rightfully so intentional about his work and how it’s used. He has a whole background in animation, but I didn’t want to give him this task of like, “You need to animate 50 drawings for me,” so I went through his Tumblr and I had some people on my team work up some rough comps of animations based on animations he’d done in the past, mimicking his style. And I sent him a little clip of the movie and he gave me the blessing to run with it, so that unlocked this whole other thing where we didn’t have to feel insanely precious about stepping on his toes. He gave us creative freedom to do that And we actually have probably 40 more animations we ended up cutting because it got too overwhelming.

As an artist yourself, was there anything that guided you in telling Geoff’s story from your own experience?

It’s been like four years of therapy for me. [laughs] I don’t think it’s a veiled version of my life, but using Geoff as a conduit to help me think through my life and this process has changed my life. I was turning 40 as Geoff was turning 50, and I spent 20 years making commercials, and a big reason I made this movie was that I wanted to start making more documentary films. That was a big life goal, and I think [Geoff] was like, I want to start being [known as] more of a serious artist and I’ve been making art for a decade and he’s been making art for two decades, so I was able to sort through a lot of things while I was telling his story and maybe he was also learning through seeing himself through my eyes, so it’s this interesting symbiotic conversation. When I told him we got into South by, he was like, “This movie has changed my life too because I’ve seen the things that you think are interesting about me and I’ve doubled down on those and I’m starting to live my life differently.” And I’m also learning how to take my art more seriously and structure my life in order to do the things I want to do, so we were both sorting through things concurrently.

Was there anything that happened along the way that may have changed your ideas of what this could be or what this story was?

For sure. It’s the difference between switching between short form and long. I’ve made a bajillion commercials and a lot of short films and originally the edit was more non-linear. That was a whole elaborate process of realizing what the story needed to be and a huge part of that was maybe two and a half years into the process, we showed a cut to Spike Jonze [to ask], “Would you be interested in being involved in this?” And he gave really an intense critique, and [I was sure] that was all we were going to get, [which alone I thought] “What a blessing.” Then he came back a few days later and said, “I want to be involved in this.” And he’s obviously an amazing filmmaker and had a relationship with Geoff, so he was a good person to bounce things off of and he wasn’t telling us how to solve the problems, but he was poking holes and we’d rethink things a little bit. Through that process, it really helped us find the shape of the story and what it needed to be from an emotional point of view and an art point of view.

What’s it like to have your first feature under your belt and get it to SXSW?

This has been the biggest project I’ve ever worked on. The beauty of commercials is they’re quick – the longest one is maybe three months from start to finish, so to be able to have this long-term project and really think through these really deep thoughts about like how one lives a life and find what’s fulfilling and how do you pursue the life you want to lead authentically – that coming to an end has been a bit of a like, “Whoa” because I’ve been pushing this boulder up this hill and then we got this like huge accolade, which is South by Southwest. As a filmmaker, you dream of these big premieres, but just finishing the film, having Spike involved, it felt good and I’m curious and excited to see it with audiences because me and an editor have been watching this for like two-and-a-half years on our own. We’ve done a lot of test screenings, which is something Spike really pushed for, but that’s one viewing experience and now to view it at a festival where we’re extremely proud of it and getting an audience reaction, it’s going to be an amazing experience.

“Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life” will screen at SXSW on March 12th at 12:30 pm at the Alamo Lamar E, March 13th at 9:30 pm at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center and March 15th at 9:30 pm at the Alamo Lamar E.

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