"If I can avoid putting anything from the movie in the movie poster, then I'm doing okay," says artist Jay Shaw. His film- poster art, which has taken off over the past year as he's worked with Austin collectible art boutique Mondo, rarely includes characters, actors or anything from the actual movie. Rather, he's inspired by Polish poster artists from the '60s and '70s whose abstract move posters, he explains, are "almost like they had a fever dream about the movie the night after they watched it and then they woke up and they drew their weird dream." Shaw recently designed a special edition, commemorative print for the Denver FilmCenter's wonderfully weird cinema series The Watching Hour, which kicks off tonight, Friday, November 2 with The American Scream and special Starz Denver Film Festival programming at the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax.
We caught up with Shaw to talk about his love of weirdo film, working with Mondo, and The Watching Hour.
See also: - Horror docs will highlight film fest's Watching Hour program - Starz Denver Film Festival preview: Brit Withey on Opening Night's A Late Quartet and more - Best Film Program: The Watching Hour
Westword: When did you start noticing movie-poster art?
Jay Shaw: I've been collecting movie posters forever. My mom used to take us to a video store and they had boxes of, like, the posters that they weren't gonna put up. They were always for movies that I loved but nobody else seemed to care about, like Chopping Mall, things like that. They would let me rummage through the box and just take whatever, because it was just posters they'd get sent from companies and they'd go, "We're not gonna put these up anywhere, these are offensive, these are gross, these are terrible." So my room as a kid was just plastered with these movie posters. And then later on I actually started collecting them and now I've got a pretty big collection. But it's all just weirdo movies; it's not, like, valuable posters. It's all crap nobody really wants. [Laughs}.
How did you get into creating your own film posters?
It was a completely random fluke last year. I did a couple of bootleg posters for some David Cronenberg movies that I loved and for some reason people really liked them, and they said, "You should do more of these." So I said, I guess so. I kind of kept doing it and all of a sudden, at the beginning of this year, the guys at Mondo took notice and they asked me if I wanted to do a couple of things for them, and then it happened.
What's your process for creating a poster?
Everything I do is kind of, I don't know if you're familiar with Polish film posters or Czechoslovakian film posters or any of the mid-century Eastern European stuff, but they're really, really, really weird posters for movies. A lot of them were American films, but they do their own posters. So when they release a movie over there, they don't just import our poster and slap other text on it like a lot of other countries. In Poland especially through the '60s and '70s, they would just completely illustrate the poster themselves and do a whole new thing. They had maybe a dozen or so really really popular illustrators there who would just constantly churn out movie posters. And they're inventive but really crazy posters: you almost don't know if they've seen the movie or not. It's like, utterly bizarre and you're like, what in the world is this? But it makes you wanna see the film. Whereas our posters, they don't really do that all the time. We're really big on actors, we're really big on names, we're really big on themes where, like, this is an explosion movie, so we gotta have explosions in the poster. The designers in Poland, they didn't care at all. If they ever did watch the movie it's almost like they had a fever dream about the movie the night after they watched it and then they woke up and they drew their weird dream.
So that's kind of the idea. I'm like a really half-assed version of that. So I'll watch a movie and then try to boil it down to, like, its most basic imagery, whatever the film's about, and try to avoid anything obvious about the movie. I just try to get rid of anything you'd normally think, like, this is what the poster would look like, or oh, it'll feature this actor. I hate that stuff. I never wanna do that. Like, if I can avoid putting anything from the movie in the movie poster, then I'm doing okay. [Laughs.] And I don't know why that's so attractive to me, but I just want to avoid absolutely everything that was in the movie.
I just did a Paranormal Activity 4 poster, and I was working with Paramount and the two directors, and they're awesome because they love these kind of posters. But I did one where it literally featured this demon throwing a house into a bunch of witches, and the demon is never shown in any of these movies. He's a character, but he's invisible. And I just went ahead and drew him. And they were like, what are you doing? We can't use that. We're not gonna show him; we haven't even figured out what he looks like ourselves. And I said, yeah, but you know it's as if you watch the movie and you kind of have a nightmare about it and then this would be the nightmare. Because there's the big, kind of creepy, weird-looking thing throwing your family into a pit with a bunch of hands reaching out.
So did you then have to revise it and do a different version?
You know, they were really cool about it. I actually did another version of it because they said, we're really not 100 percent keen on literally showing the monster that we've never shown, so we love it, but we don't really know that we can do it, so can you do another one? And I did, and it was a little more straightforward. It was still the same kind of weirdness. Nothing I do is gonna be normal. It's a pretty far-out poster, but that one was as straightforward as I can get. But they were cool enough to let us release both of them, so the totally weird one that I made, they let us put that out as a small variant kind of a run that didn't have very many prints. The weirdos that collect the stuff that I make, they'll be really happy with it and they'll say yeah, this is great, but when it gets to studios and people that have anything to do with the film they kind of go, what? This is terrible. I did one for Rocky III that's a fist punching out of a tiger, and that was a very divisive thing because people were going, this is the dumbest poster ever. And other people said this is really great, I love it. So there's a lot of revisions that have to happen.
There's a bunch of them. Frank Kozik did a really wonderful Dazed and Confused poster, in 1994 I think, when the movie was first coming out and they were doing the premiere in Austin. It looked like a gig poster. It's this really super-great, psychedelic, weird thing that features Wooderson's car instead of any characters right on the front of it. It's really bright and there's all kinds of wildness going on. I love that poster. And I don't know, there's a bunch of really great ones. There's a pretty controversial Cabaret poster. It's a Polish Cabaret poster for the film and it's this really outlandish-looking illustration of Liza Minnelli but she's got four legs and they're bent into the shape of a swastika. It's a beautiful, beautiful poster but that doesn't hang up in a lot of living rooms.
Can you talk about how you got connected with The Watching Hour and created the poster for the film festival?
Last year, when I very, very first started doing posters -- and mind you, I've been to art school, I've been doing art the whole time, I just never bothered to try to do it commercially -- but last year I started doing posters and people kind of liked them and I got a few gigs and I got hired to do some gig posters and a few movie posters. And I was thinking, wow, maybe this will be a career. I can actually do this, I can work on this, I can make this happen. And I'm a little old to be starting a new career, but whatever. I thought, I'll try. And I actually went to Keith [Garcia, Denver FilmCenter programming manager], and I took everything I have, like, all the nerves I had in me bundled up, and I went to the FilmCenter and I found him and said hey, listen, I'm starting to do movie posters and I was wondering if maybe you'd want me to do some stuff for Watching Hour, because I love the series and it's the exact movies that I'm into. He was really polite about it, he was like, "Yeah, sure man, send me your stuff, send me a few of your posters and we'll think about it and see what's up." And I went home and I gathered up everything I'd made that was worth anything and I wrote this e-mail, I probably rewrote it ten times, because I thought that would be, like, my big break. And so I wrote this e-mail over and over and over again and I sent it to him and I never ever got a response. Worst rejection ever. [Laughs.]
Admittedly, the posters at that point, they weren't great. I hadn't kind of broken out and found a voice. I was just aping other people's styles, and if I saw them now I would say, I don't know, man, that's not a very good poster. But I never heard from him and I was like, that really stings. It was a mixture of disappointment and almost, you know, weird indignation where I was like, I'm never going to the Watching Hour. I'm never going to watch a movie at the FilmCenter. [Laughs.] I'm very emotional about things and I was ranting and raving about it. And then out of nowhere I heard from them, somewhat recently this year, and they said, hey, do you wanna do something? Let's meet. And this is obviously after I've had some success in the poster world and I reminded Keith of that. We went out to coffee and I said, do you remember I came up to you a year ago and asked if I could make posters? And he did remember, he was almost sort of embarrassed about it, and he said, yeah, I remember, anyways, moving on, let's have you do something. It was a really funny kind of moment. I was like, I still hold a grudge, Keith, I still hate that, why did you do that to me? And he's like, I'm so sorry, I don't even know, I don't think there was any reason, we just didn't have a need for posters right then. But yeah, so totally from a rejection to them asking if I wanted to do something.
What was your process for creating the Watching Hour poster?
Oh, this one was super-easy because Keith was awesome about it. He just said, "You know the Watching Hour. You understand what we do, so have fun." And the first thing that came to mind was just, you know, these great old public access channels in the '80s after midnight, where they would just play, like, who knows what. Equipment would break down and it was always that type of like, beyond the Twilight Zone. You know what I mean? Just crazy. I thought to myself, what would be a cool poster if you were trying to advertise for, like public access in like 1984 and they're only gonna play, like, samurai movies and really bad sci-fi? If they wanted a poster. Because that's kind of what Watching Hour is. It's basically this love letter to those types of movies and the type of people who would actually stay up that late and watch them. So that was it. I was just like, all right, let's go with ridiculous and kind of as gaudy as I possibly can. It was lots of pink and kind of turquoise and sort of a random, obscure grid of nothingness and a chrome pyramid with eyes in it and a hand with light coming out. It's just like all these images that don't really mean much of anything, but put together they kind of get across the idea. And I looked at a lot of posters from that era and a lot of the posters are so disconnected from the movies, where the poster's kind of great-looking and then you watch the movie and you're like, nothing in the poster is in this movie at all. That never happened. You can tell they told some artist, look, we just want it to be weird and science fiction, don't worry about the movie, we haven't even started making it yet, but just do the poster, we need that first. It kind of came from that idea; just go nuts and have fun.
What attracts you to doing posters rather than fine art?
It's the subject matter. It's because I'm doing something for a film. I'll be honest, if I were just doing fine art I would probably get really, really bored with it and just not do it. Honestly, I don't think I would be great at it. There are so many wonderful, talented artists out there and I love their art, and I don't know that I'd even want to play in the same pool that they're in because they're so great at it. I don't have those type of ideas; I don't really get inspired to do art for art's sake. I get inspired by watching a movie or listening to a band, or even reading a book and then doing a piece of commercial art for that thing. This is intentionally commercial artwork. It's mean to be an advertisement for somebody else's artistic output. And I feel sort of comfortable in that role, where I can look at somebody else's brilliance and then just try to latch onto that and do something that advertises their greatness.
When I watch a really amazing movie, I can extrapolate some of that director's or that writer's really great ideas, and I can just regurgitate it somehow and come out with what I come out with. I only wanna do it this way. Honestly, if you look at the posters and you took away the titles and the context, I don't really know that it would stand up on its own. I've seen other people's movie posters and I would take the title off and it would be a beautiful piece of art. But if you take away the title, then all of a sudden it loses context and it loses its conceptual meaning. I think it almost makes it a better movie poster in that way. It's so married to the film that it becomes a real part of the poster's soul, if there's such a thing. The praise that I get is when people say, oh man, you really got the movie. You really watched that; you were really paying attention. And yeah, I was, because I love the film. Most of the movie posters I see at the movie theater, it's like, you could exchange the title for another movie. This one's got Ben Affleck in it, this one doesn't. That's the only difference between the posters. But with my posters, at least people can say, this guy really does love these movies. Even if the art's crazy and crap, at least I love the movies.
Shaw's limited edition commemorative poster for The Watching Hour will be available at the Denver FilmCenter Colfax box office for $35. For more art from Jay Shaw, visit his website. Click through to the next page for the full Watching Hour Film Festival schedule.
The Watching Hour: Schedule for the 2012 Starz Denver International Film Festival
THE AMERICAN SCREAM - Director Michael Paul Stephenson In-Person! Nov 2 at 9:30pm / Nov 3 at 2:15pm
HEADSHOT - Nov 2 at 9:30pm / Nov 3 at 10:00pm
THE ABCS OF DEATH - Nov 2 at Midnight
DEATH PROOF - Actress/Stuntwoman Zoe Bell In-Person! Nov 3 at Midnight
WRONG - Nov 3 at 11;45pm / Nov 6 at 9:15pm
ZOMBIE TOWN HALL MEETING - George Romero, Max Brooks and Steven Schlozman In-Person! Nov 7 at 7pm
THE BIRDS - Tippi Hedren In-Person! Nov 9 at 4pm
MY AMITYVILLE HORROR - Nov 9 at 9:45pm / Nov 11 at 4:30 pm
THE AMITYVILLE HORROR - Nov 9 at Midnight
THE KING OF PIGS - Nov 9 at Midnight / NOv 10 at 9:30pm
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JOHN DIES AT THE END - Director Don Coscarelli In-Person - Nov 10 at Midnight