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Tribeca ’09 Interview: “Con Artist” Director Michael Sladek (Discovery Section)

Tribeca '09 Interview: "Con Artist" Director Michael Sladek (Discovery Section)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of several interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

“Con Artist”
Director: Michael Sládek
Cast: Mark Kostabi
Synopsis: From the beginning, Mark Kostabi pronounced his raison d’être as an artist widely: to take all the cash and all the glory. A superstar during the frantic glory of the 1980s New York art world, Kostabi has unapologetically signed and sold thousands of paintings made by painters/laborers who attest to not having seen Kostabi paint for years. His practice reveals a shrewd critique of valuation in the modern art world, but when his purposeful skewering turned to ruthlessly biting the hands that fed him, he was rapidly jolted from the position of daring darling to the unspeakable persona non grata. [Synopsis courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival]

Please introduce yourself.

Michael Sladek, Director & Producer, Founder of Plug Ugly Films, Inc.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

I started out as a theatre actor and director, and eventually started working in film in Los Angeles. After becoming a tad jaded about the industry there, I left LA with an experimental theatre company and while living in Vermont, began writing screenplays.

Once I moved to New York I started working in TV and then decided that making films was really what I wanted to do, and that New York was where I wanted to establish myself. I quit my day job at MTV News and started Plug Ugly Films through which my partners and I made music, industrial videos and eventually our first feature, “Devils Are Dreaming.”

And that’s when my hair started turning grey. In the end I think all filmmakers have a need to create giant messes in their lives just so they can have the joy of cleaning them up.

What prompted the idea for your film?

I was unemployed a few summers ago and was taking essentially any kind of job I could find. One of my neighbors happened to work as a painter for this artist who didn’t make his own paintings and suggested I come down to his studio to help him shoot his weekly cable access game show. I did so and quickly realized that Mark Kostabi and his scene, plus the entire backdrop of the New York art world, were amazingly interesting and filled with comic potential. Kostabi himself was the kind of character I’d have liked to have written: filled with contradictions and neuroses, aspirations and disappointments, loved and hated amongst his peers, and running in a world at war with itself over depth versus hype.

The main thing that convinced me was that I knew I could make the film as a dark comic character piece rather than just a biopic or over-serious look at the art world.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.

As described above, I really look at “Con Artist” as a character piece and a comedy along the lines of “King of Comedy.” As we shot over the span of 2 1/2 years, the trick was to find an arc to the storyline that wasn’t based solely on some gimmick or an A&E-style bio doc format. What we came up with was a pretty classically structured comedy about this characters search for redemption and fulfillment and love. Thankfully, this was all based on reality and what was unfolding for us before our cameras.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
Money. Money. Money. In fact….anyone want to invest?

Otherwise: we had so much great material to work with that editing it all down to a solid structure was very difficult. Our co-editor Jacob Bricca (Lost in LaMancha) really did a terrific job helping structure the story after many months of intense cutting and re-cutting.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

I define “success” as a filmmaker as being able to continue to make the films I want to make. There are many necessary and crucial components that feed into this, but that in the end, is the ultimate success.

What are your future projects?

We have a number of narratives in development including a black comedy that’s a spin-off of our first film, “Devils Are Dreaming,” a western, a thriller called “Bad Wisdom,” a broad slapstick comedy about karaoke, and we’re courting a few novels for potential development.

We’ll come back to documentaries at some point, but having a script and defined sections of production will be a luxury after the insanity that is documentary filmmaking.

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