Though Norma Desmond only lived at the cineplex (and now Netflix), she famously said, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." Filmmaker and one-time Newport Beach resident Michael Slàdek is not yet big, but he is turning the phrase uttered by Sunset Boulevard's gloriously spaced-out Gloria Swanson on its head. For him, it's the film festivals that got big.
Five years after Slàdek's debut feature, Devils Are Dreaming, premiered at the 2004 Newport Beach Film Festival, Con Artist, his new feature-length documentary on New York "business artist" and composer Mark Kostabi, makes its world premiere April 25 at the Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan. It's a long way from Newport Harbor High School, where Slàdek finished high school after his family moved from Denver when he was 16.
"It was definitely a culture shock," he recalls by phone from his new home in New York City, in between busily finishing post-production on Con Artist in preparation of the festival that runs April 22-May 3. "I remember coming to town. First I started high school at Corona del Mar, then I went to Newport Harbor. I was wearing jeans, boots, a black trench coat, the sides of my head were shaved. I was looking a little like a punk rock kid. And everyone else was in shorts, tee-shirts with long, surfer hair. It was definitely quite different."
Slàdek fit in nicely in the theater department. "In the long run I had a blast in Newport," he said. Having just read in the New York Times about the controversy involving the on, off and on-again production of Rent at Corona del Mar High School, Slàdek said, "I know there are a lot of strange things now" and seemed genuinely mystified about it. He was not oblivious to clashes between art, culture, politics and discrimination during his time behind the fabled Orange Curtain—an "unfortunate undercurrent" as he put it—but that was not his local experience, remembering the community as being "very supportive for the most part" to a high school theater freak.
He took his high school chops to Orange Coast College and also appeared in theatrical productions at Laguna Playhouse and South Coast Repertory. He later moved to Los Angeles, wound up in an experimental theater company and grew "sick of it there." He moved to New York and spent three years working behind-the-scenes at MTV News and also directed music videos, worked off-camera in the porn industry and managed the Brooklyn band Stupid. He'd never got involved in film production while in Orange County, but jumped into cinema in the Big Apple.
"I guess the New York scene is more friendly to independent film than Los Angeles," he said. "I didn't realize it, it just happened that way."
Among his first film-related gigs was working at Tribeca and he remains the New York rep for SAGIndie. He also runs his own NYC-based indie production company, Plug Ugly Films, whose debut feature was Devils Are Dreaming, which he set in Southern California and largely shot in Orange County. For the film's hypnotic soundtrack, he leaned on Stupid (synergy, baby!). As he told the Weekly's Greg Stacy in an April 2004 interview, among the obstacles that production suffered was getting shut down by Irvine police on the first day of shooting because red-headed lead actor Stephen Donovan was running through the UCI campus in his underwear and a robe, wielding a large kitchen knife.
As you can imagine, Devils Are Dreaming is unusual. It follows a frustrated, wannabe artist named Joseph (Donovan) bouncing between various realities, capturing glimpses of other paths his life could have taken. In his separate Weekly review, Stacy called it a "strange and irritating but potent directorial debut."
Slàdek went on to make other shorts and features that got picked up by other festivals, and ranking them all he puts Newport Beach's among the top of his list, calling it "one of the more fun and well-organized, filmcentric festivals I've been to." It saddens him Con Artist will not be making the trip to the town he once called home. Unfortunately, the Newport and Tribeca festivals overlap this year.
The choice over which to enter was obvious. Slàdek calls Tribeca "a major festival." Producer Jane Rosenthal and legendary actor Robert DeNiro founded the event in Manhattan's TriBeCa neighborhood in 2002 as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. Newport is the type of place newbie filmmakers go to get their films seen by someone, anyone. Tribeca is among the festivals to go to in hopes of actually selling your picture. Con Artist will get three shots as it is shown in an AMC Theatre April 25, 28 and May 2 during Tribeca, in addition to an unscheduled press screening.
"All involved, including the executive producer, really see it being sold," Slàdek says. "It's an interesting project to us because I think it has the legs to reach a larger audience than people just interested in art. It is not a biography of an artist. It's really more a black comedy about an anti-hero figure who exists in the art world but opposes artwork at the same time."
The 48-year-old Kostabi is known most for creating the cover art for the Guns n' Roses Use Your Illusion albums and for being a notorious and self-referential faker—thus the title of Slàdek's film. Among those sharing their recollections are East Village regulars like filmmaker Michel Gondry, Interview's Glenn O'Brien and graffiti artist Daze. The soundtrack features underground artists such as the Willowz, Richie Follin and Fur Cups for Teeth.
The center of attention is always Kostabi, however.
"He tries to find himself again after a huge rise in fame and massive drop from fame," the filmmaker says of his subject. "He has had success and is obsessed with finding success again. It's a personal look at his journey, set in art world. I think of the dark comedies, like the King of Comedy and Napoleon Dynamite, that had these quirky, interesting guys you can't take your eyes off of."
As the trailer (which you can see here) shows, Kostabi was once hailed as a genius for his "original art." Like Andy Warhol before him, Kostabi maintained a factory of talented people. Unlike Warhol, who as far as we know only exploited his hangers-on for art he alone created, Kostabi took the actual artwork made by his followers and simply put his signature to them—and publicly admitted as much. As such, he was hailed as an even greater genius, commenting as his art was on the recyclable nature of our polluted, celebrity-soaked society's ... aw, who the fuck knows? All that can be said with certainty is a bright star inevitably fades away. Just ask Norma Desmond.
A few summers ago, unemployed and looking for any kind of work, Slàdek was talking with a neighbor who was once one of Kostabi's uncredited painters. He mentioned the artist needed help with the production of a game show televised from his studio. Not knowing a lick about Kostabi, Slàdek headed over, picked up a video camera and started shooting for the artist "for a few bucks every Friday. Little by little I was stunned by the characters who would show up."
Indeed, it hit Slàdek that Kostabi's life was the stuff of a feature-length documentary.
"It's a story that has to be told," the filmmaker said. "It's not just a story about Kostabi but art, money, celebrity and him being a faker. Those really became the themes of the film project I wanted to do. I enlisted another production company I had worked with on things in the past. I really just started shooting to see where it would go."
Where it went the world will discover at Tribeca. Slàdek is adamant that no one lay eyes on his picture until its first audience has, a prohibition that extends to Kostabi. "No, he has not seen the film," Slàdek says. "We've been very, very upfront about no audience seeing the film until it's out there." He's afraid showing it to Kostabi, who was quite generous when it came to granting access, sitting for interviews and allowing Slàdek to dig for archival footage from the artist's extensive library, would "put him in a really strange position."
"It's hard not to see a picture beforehand, but it's harder to see it without realizing an audience has seen it first," he said. "So we've kept him from it. He's been very open to the whole project, very willing and helpful giving us access. He likes the fact that we're doing it."
Slàdek suspects Kostabi will be surprised "in good and bad ways, probably" by some of the footage and interviews contained in the finished film.
Ah, the finished film. Making that phrase a reality currently motivates Slàdek—and keeps him up at night—mere weeks before Tribeca opens.
"We're very far along, but the film is not finished. We are just starting the audio mix. We are just to the point where we are comfortable with the edit. Everything left to do now is a combination of technically finishing the film, bumping up the motion graphics, color correcting the stills, fudging with it to make things look better. We are in the process of licensing what needs to be licensed. You don't do any of that stuff at first because you don't know what will survive the edit."
If he could afford shoestrings, he'd be working on a shoestring budget.
"We are not rolling in Hollywood money, but that is inspiring us," he said. "We will be firing on all cylinders, 24/7, until the festival. When it is over, we want to to come to Newport Beach and relax."
Perhaps lying on the cool sands of Little Corona Slàdek can decide on his next project.
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"Mainly I want to get narrative features up and running after this one is done," he says. "We're looking at a dark black comedy, a western and we're also developing a thriller. There is a book that might potentially turn into a film as well. But the next one has to be a narrative and much easier. I don't want it to take 2 ½ years like this did."
By the way, Kostabi also knows Southern California well, having grown up in the Whittier area. But New York is where he made it as an artist, just like Slàdek.
"Yeah, we share a similar path in that regard," says the filmmaker. "I also have Eastern European parents like he does. Some might say we're similar in the con-artist myth. You could probably say most filmmakers have a little con artist in there, pulling something out of nothing on a regular basis. We point cameras, make edits; there's a little con in doing that to some degree."
He's hopeful Con Artist will make it to an Orange County screen "soon."