New York-based filmmaker Julian Marshall has released the first narrative film about notorious street artist Shepard Fairey. The 20-minute project, Obey The Giant, debuted on Vimeo a week ago and already has over 164,000 views.
The 22-year-old Marshall, now just one year out of the film program at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), made the film as his senior thesis project. One of RISD’s most infamous former students, Fairey graduated from the illustration program there in 1992, after his sophomore year, and went on to a prolific career as a street artist. He’s also had a measure of recognition from the more conventional art world; in 2009, the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art mounted a retrospective. He’s also gained some attention in the courts, having been found guilty of tampering with evidence related to a 2009 copyright suit against him by the Associated Press in connection with his Obama “Hope” poster.
The film focuses on Fairey’s time at RISD in 1990. Marshall used the campus to re-create the beginning of Fairey’s “Andre the Giant” campaign, centered on a small sticker featuring a stylized face of professional wrestler Andre The Giant. Fairey and his friends slapped the sticker all over Providence. Fairey then created a giant poster of the image and wheat-pasted it onto a campaign billboard for the once and future mayor Buddy Cianci, who was then running for reelection. Cianci was Providence’s mayor from 1975-1984 and would win again in 1991; he resigned twice, in 1984 after pleading no contest to charges of assaulting his wife’s alleged lover, and in 2002 after a racketeering conviction. The small stickers now can be seen all over the world.
Having interned as a RISD undergraduate as an assistant video editor for Fairey, Marshall, along with fellow Fairey video editor Alex Jablonski, who wrote the screenplay, was able to work closely with Fairey in developing the story. Many of the props on the set, such as posters, materials and various trinkets, had been in Fairey’s studio and were loaned to Marshall by Fairey’s old friends.
Marshall and Jablonski confront the walls between disciplines and departments still present at art schools today, the influence of attention from the press on a young student-artist, and the irony of getting in trouble for breaking the rules in an environment that encourages students to do just that. The film winds up saying as much about the stifling nature of art school as it does about the early years of Fairey’s career.
Marshall used fundraising website Kickstarter to raise $65,000 for post-production costs; his average donation was just over $100. The film was uploaded to Vimeo, where it was quickly picked up as a staff pick. Marshall never released it on YouTube. “[Vimeo] is more of a creative atmosphere. It’s not about the amount of likes you get, it’s about the right people seeing it,” Marshall commented on his choice of Vimeo over YouTube for his premiere.
Marshall has made copies of the film available on DVD for his Kickstarter backers but says his primary audience is online. “I hope I will just barely be in the last generation of people who get to see their movies in theaters,” he said. Reflecting on the opportunities available to a young filmmaker, Marshall noted that “it makes sense that my first film would be released online, free. It’s fitting because I’m in the generation of kids who for the first time can direct, shoot, edit and distribute their projects on their own.”