June 23, 2015
Guests: Noah Charney - Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off this week. If you had the artistic talent to create impressive paintings or sculpture, could you imagine devoting that skill to copying the work of past artists and trying to pass your creations off as authentic? Our guest, art scholar Noah Charney, says you'd be surprised how many people have done just that over the years, some successfully selling hundreds of fakes as the real thing. You'd also be surprised, he says, at how many art forgers want to get caught, so they can embarrass the art world that wasn't interested in their original work but was too dim to tell forgeries from true masterpieces. Charney's new book is an absorbing look at the techniques, colorful characters and consequences of art forgery dating back to the Renaissance. Noah Charney's an art historian and writer and founder and president of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, a nonprofit research group devoted to issues of art crime. He's written numerous articles and a novel called, "The Art Thief." His new book is, "The Art Of Forgery."
Noah Charney, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, I learned from your book that it was really only around the Renaissance that art collecting in the modern sense developed, and that before that, people cared about works of art more for what they were than for their origin. And one of the best stories of forgery involves the famous Michelangelo, who was not copied - he was the forger. Tell us what happened.
NOAH CHARNEY: It's an amazing true story 'cause most people don't realize that Michelangelo began his career before he was the Michelangelo, as a forger of ancient Roman sculptures. And that was at a time in the Renaissance when an ancient Roman sculpture was far more valuable than a work made a few weeks ago by this character, Michelangelo Buonarroti, who no one had ever heard of. And so he, in cahoots with an art dealer, contrived to make a marble sculpture called "Sleeping Eros," and it was buried in a garden and dug up, broken, repaired and sold as an antiquity to a cardinal who was an expert in antiquities and should probably have known better. But the cardinal, after a few years, started to get suspicious and tried to return the sculpture to the dealer. But by this time, Michelangelo was the most famous sculptor in Rome, so the dealer was very happy to take the sculpture back. And he sold it very easily on as now a Michelangelo original.
DAVIES: So essentially, the forgery was discovered. Did it damage his reputation?
CHARNEY: To the contrary, it was actually - embellished it. And Michelangelo was the first to admit this story because in order to demonstrate his capability as a great artist, artists have always copied the art of past periods. And artists studying with a master in their studio, their job would be to replicate the master's style as closely as possible so that you really couldn't tell the difference. And it only becomes a problem if you try to pass off the work you create as the work of someone else, and you could commit the crime of fraud. But even to this day, there's no crime called forgery. Forgers commit crime of economic fraud, but it's no problem to copy or to imitate another artist's style.
DAVIES: You know, today, there are a lot of scientific tests that can help you determine at least the age of a painting and some other relevant information. But in the past, people relied on experts - art connoisseurs - to help authenticate works of art. What kind of expertise did they bring, and how reliable was it?
CHARNEY: One of the odd things about the art world is that there has never been any objective determination of expertise in a specific period or artist. You could have a Ph.D., or even two, in Rembrandt and that doesn't necessarily mean that you can identify a Rembrandt from a copy after Rembrandt, or something done by someone in his studio. In the world of wine, you need to go through elaborate steps to become a master of wine over many years and fulfill these objective tests. The art world doesn't have that. So expertise has always been a matter of personal opinion, and it's been quite subjective. It's very unscientific. And yet for centuries, expertise has been the primary way to authenticate something. The secondary way is provenance research - looking into the documented history of the object. But knowing this, criminals can insert themselves into the history of the object and pass-off forgeries with remarkable ease because the art world, unfortunately, is often inadvertently complicit in authenticating forgeries.
DAVIES: All right, so some connoisseurs got quite famous for doing what they were doing, but there are many cases where they were just fooled, right?
CHARNEY: There were a lot of cases where they're just fooled. And even extremely knowledgeable experts get fooled now and then. It's a sort of trap that the most successful forgers plant in order to ensnare experts. And the best of the forgers, it's the confidence trick rather than the object itself that convinces. You look at a lot of these pieces in a vacuum and you wonder, how is anyone fooled by this? But the confidence trick and various renditions of what I call a provenance trap is what really authenticates these pieces.
DAVIES: What are some of the physical things, apart from the quality of the art itself that you would look for in a painting to help determine its authenticity?
CHARNEY: Well, it depends on the type of painting. But if we're talking about an oil painting, one of the things that has to be replicated in order for it to appear old is called craquelure. And craquelure is the web of cracks that appears naturally in oil paint over time as it expands and contracts, and it literally looks like little webbing on the surface. And you can study that and you can determine whether it was artificially induced to make it look old quickly or whether it appeared naturally. And there are various tricks to try to make it appear that it was old when it was artificially induced, but that's usually a good clue for oil paintings.
DAVIES: How do you recreate craquelure?
CHARNEY: Well, we actually have some accounts voluntarily presented by famous forgers for their own recipes for how to make forgeries. And a handful of the forgers in the book volunteered themselves - they were never caught - because they wanted the notoriety. And one of them is Eric Hebborn - and if I'm allowed to have a favorite forger, it would be him.
CHARNEY: He's the only forger in this pantheon of forgers in this book who I would argue was at the same artistic skill level as the people he imitated. And he published a book called "The Art Forger's Handbook," which was literally - it was like a cookbook of recipes for how to create forgeries and artificially age them. And one of the techniques is to take an oil paint and cover it in a shortening, like Crisco or Bakelite, and you literally bake it in an oven at a certain temperature for a certain amount of time, and it artificially induces something that looks like craquelure. He also explained how you could paint on craquelure, which is very painstaking, but he was able to successfully pull it off.
DAVIES: What else - labels, inscriptions on frames, or on the material that it's painted on?
CHARNEY: Well, it's very important to look at the back of objects, particularly paintings and prints. And there's a lot of information on the back that people tend not to look at, things like old auction stamps. There might be stamps by previous owners. There might be information on the support itself - where the canvas was purchased. These sort of details are very important, but people tend to look at the front of a painting but not turn it over. They're particularly loath to take something out of its frame if it's nicely matted and framed. And this you really need to do, especially if you're buying, for instance, 20th-century lithographs. Those are the most frequently forged objects in all of art. And unfortunately, laser printers and Photoshop - you can forge these without any artistic skill, thanks to computers. And if it's matted-up and framed, you can't tell a lot about it. And it's very difficult to distinguish a lithograph from something that was printed out a few weeks ago, so it's important to take things out of the frame and look at the back and see if there are any markings that suggest age and suggest the origin of the object.
DAVIES: And wormholes tell a story?
CHARNEY: Wormholes do tell a story, and that is one of the most difficult things to reproduce. These are literally holes that tiny insects can make, and they're irregular. They squirm around, and they eat their way through paper or panel and - incredibly difficult to do anything that is that organic and irregular if you're trying to reproduce it with mechanical tools. So that is one of the best ways to try to age something. But there are forgers who have shot panels with buckshot to try to replicate the holes, but then you'll have the holes on the surface, but they won't curve around organically as if a worm had made them.
So for each tool of a forger, there's a way that we can spot it. But the trick is really that it rarely gets to the point of in-depth analysis or even forensic testing. The nature of the art trade is such that if it looks pretty good and experts agree on it and if the provenance, the documented history, looks good then nobody bothers with a scientific testing. And it probably shouldn't be that way, but it's been that way for a very long time.
DAVIES: And when a forger actually paints a work of art intended to look like that of a master, can you tell a difference in brush-strokes?
CHARNEY: Yes, you usually can. And brush-stroke analysis is one of the tools that experts will use and that scientists can use, too, although science is rather late in coming to the analysis and authentication of works of art. It tends to be more mystical than that. The great scholar, Walter Benjamin, wrote a famous article that said, we don't understand why great art is great, but it has some sort of aura that people respond to. And the shorthand is, that if we could scientifically explain away what we found beautiful or moving about it then it would sort of detract from the mysticism of it. And in terms of authenticating things, it's a lot down to personal opinion of experts. They'll look at brush-strokes, but, you know, within any one artist's oeuvre, their style might change. They might've had a funny day. They aren't always exactly the same when they paint, and so finding brush-strokes that look a bit different isn't a specific determination that it's a forgery. There are lots of works that are copies after original works. There are works that were made by people in the studio of the master with the master's supervision that are almost certainly sanctioned by the master, but they're not originals. And it wasn't long ago that at Museo del Prado in Madrid, they found a "Mona Lisa" that looked just like the original. And they would've said it's a copy after the "Mona Lisa," except that it had under-drawings that matched the original, which suggests that the concept of it was developed alongside the original, and it was almost certainly painted by one of Leonardo's pupils alongside the original while he was painting it.
DAVIES: So in a case like that, where there's a studio system - the master supervises students who are copying a work, that work gets out into the art world - how different is that from a work by the master?
CHARNEY: It's a great question because we tend to think of artists as individuals creating the work of art in their entirety, and that is not the way it has been for many centuries. That's a very romantic notion of how art is created. And in fact, centuries-long process is the studio system, and all of the great, old masters ran art studios. And depending on how much you paid them, they would create, themselves, a relevant proportion of the work of art. So if you want a Rubens, for example, you pay him the maximum amount then he paints everything himself, and he designs it too. You pay him the minimum. It's still called a Rubens, but he supervises and designs the object, but it might be entirely painted by his pupils. And in practice, it's usually a mixture. Faces, eyes and hands are almost always done by the master 'cause they're considered the more difficult, if you're talking about portraits. But backgrounds, architectural elements, still lifes, those were almost never painted by the master, and yet anything coming out of the master's studio is considered the work of Rubens. So when people get upset about artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, who design works and supervise it but they have a team of people in a factory making it for them, that's actually in keeping with a centuries-old artistic tradition.
DAVIES: Our guest is Noah Charney. His new book is, "The Art Of Forgery." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is Noah Charney. He knows about art and art crime. He has a new book called, "The Art Of Forgery."
You write that a lot of forgers are artists who didn't quite succeed in their independent careers and so they took to forgery, in part, to get back at the art world that rejected them. I love this phrase of yours, revenge is a dish best served at auction (laughter).
There are a lot of examples of this. Eric Hebborn is among the most famous. What got him into forgery?
CHARNEY: Eric Hebborn is an example of the majority of forgers that I look at, and they do fit this psychological profile. He was a failed original artist and he decided he was going to get back at the art world that rejected his original creations, but he had a more specific origin story. He had been at a flea market and he spotted what he thought were some good drawings, and he bought them and he brought them to a gallery called Colnaghi in London. And the people there said, yeah, these are pretty good. You got a good eye. We'll take them off your hands. And he doubled his money, so he was quite pleased. But then a few weeks later he was walking past the gallery and he saw those drawings in the window for thousands of pounds, and he felt that he had been ripped-off by these sort of stuffy gallerists, and he decided he was going to back at them.
DAVIES: Well, was that because they recognized that they were the authentic works of masters or, I mean, did they just know more than he did?
CHARNEY: They just knew more than he did and, of course, this happens. If you run a gallery, your job is to buy works of art that you think are maybe undervalued and sell them at a profit. But he felt that he was being taken advantage of, and he decided that he was going to take advantage of them in return.
DAVIES: So what did he do?
CHARNEY: Well, he started out by creating drawings that appear to be preparatory sketches for famous paintings. And this is a very clever idea. And what he was doing was creating lost works. And you may know that, for pre-modern artists, we usually know of many more works than our extent than we can identify. And, in some cases - for old masters, Renaissance, medieval artists - as much as two-thirds of their oeuvre is missing, lost, and there's always hope that objects might resurface. And Eric Hebborn was creating objects that match this description. His trick was to choose a famous painting and to create a drawing that looked like a preparatory sketch for it. And the reason that drawings don't often survive is that it's a recent concept that drawings are collectible. For most of the history of art, drawings were made as a preparation for the final. They're like blueprints - you keep the building, but you might not necessarily keep the blueprints. And so every once in a while, these drawings resurface, but it's only recently that they were considered something collectible to display on your wall. So it's very clever of him to choose something that we know existed. We don't have examples of it, and so he's creating a work of art that functions as a piece of provenance.
DAVIES: And how successful was he? How many forgeries did he manage to sell?
CHARNEY: He was hugely successful, and he's really the most skillful and the most passionate about his art. And he's one of the few forgers who created works that were forensically identical to the originals. And now, most forgers don't need to do that because if it looks good and if the provenance trap is convincing - if the story is convincing enough - then nobody bothers with scientific testing. But, he created at least a thousand forgeries, probably more than that. And there are probably some of his works sitting on gallery walls and we just don't know.
DAVIES: And when you say they're forensically identical, did you say, to the originals, what do you mean?
CHARNEY: They are. Let me give you some examples - and we know in detail 'cause he very helpfully wrote a book called, "The Art Forger's Handbook," which has been found in the studio of many forgers arrested since it came out, and he gives recipes for how to make forgeries. So for example, he would buy early modern books to reuse pieces of paper from it to create early modern drawings, so that if the paper was tested forensically, it would date to the right era. He would also create his own inks. For example, there's a type of ink called oak gall, and it's acidic, so if you make a drawing with this oak gall ink and it sits on paper for long enough, it will slowly start to erode the paper and it'll have little grooves where the lines are, and he knows this. And so he says, if you want to make oak gall drawing that looks 500 years old, you're going to need to dip your quill in sulfuric acid and trace your lines so that it eats away at the paper so an expert will see these grooves, and it will suggest the age of the presence of this ink on the page. That level of detail is astounding to me, and I appreciate, from an art history standpoint, that he would have it that level of detail and passion for his subject.
DAVIES: When forgers are caught, how often are they criminally prosecuted?
CHARNEY: Most forgers are caught on the charge of fraud, and for that to happen, someone has to be defrauded out of money or perhaps their reputation. And what tends to happen - and the way that they're caught - is that they accidentally leave some sort of anachronism in one of their works of art. For example, the famous German forger, Wolfgang Beltracchi - who got out of prison just a few weeks ago - he was caught because he used a pigment called titanium white in a painting that had been made, supposedly, before titanium white was invented. And so that's what gave away the game. But on the other hand, there are forgers who intentionally insert anachronisms in order to be able to reveal themselves later on.
DAVIES: They want to get caught?
CHARNEY: They want to get caught because they want the notoriety. And there's a very funny story that's maybe my favorite story in the book about a German forger after the Second World War named Lothar Malskat. And Malskat was a restorer who was hired to restore medieval frescoes in a German church that had been damaged by an allied bomb. And when he got there, he realized that they were damaged beyond repair and the archival photos didn't show him enough detail of what they originally looked like, but that didn't stop him. He went right to work and he eventually revealed what appeared to be a great cycle of lost medieval frescoes, and this was a rare bit of good news in postwar Germany. The German government was so excited, they printed four million postage stamps with the detail of these frescoes on them.
CHARNEY: But Malskat was not satisfied with this private victory, and he announced that he was the artist, the forger, but nobody believed him. So, he took the very unusual step of suing himself. He was the defendant and the prosecution because he wanted a public, on-the-record forum to explain that he was, in fact, the artist. And nobody still believed him, even when he was on the stand. But then he was able to point to a few anachronisms that he had inserted just in case no one believed him. And these were supposed to be medieval frescoes, but he had inserted a painting of a turkey, and turkeys are indigenous to North America, so there were no turkeys running around medieval Europe. And he also inserted a portrait of Marlene Dietrich, and she definitely wasn't running around medieval Europe.
DAVIES: (Laughter). Well, Noah Charney, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
CHARNEY: Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Noah Charney is an art historian and writer, and founder of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art. His new book is, "The Art Of Forgery."
After a break, we'll hear from film director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. His new movie, "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl," won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who's off this week. The new movie "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" was the breakout hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It tells the story of two high school outcasts, Greg and Earl, who love movies and secretly make movies of their own. Their films, which parody movies they love, are given funny titles like "My Dinner With Andre The Giant," "Senior Citizen Kane," and "Scab Face." But when a high school classmate, Rachel, is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg and Earl are pressured into making a movie for her. "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" won the audience award and the grand jury prize at Sundance. It's directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who, like his characters, became obsessed with movies as a teenager. He grew up in Laredo, Texas near the Mexico border, but after he saw "Mean Streets" in high school, he decided to move to New York and study film at NYU. He later became an assistant to Martin Scorsese and went on to work on other films and directed for TV shows including "Glee" and "American Horror Story." "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" is his second feature film. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon spoke to FRESH AIR guest contributor Anna Sale, host of "Death, Sex and Money," a podcast from WNYC.
ANNA SALE, BYLINE: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, welcome to FRESH AIR.
ALFONSO GOMEZ-REJON: Thank you.
SALE: I want to start with a clip from the film which shows the beginning of Greg and Rachel's friendship. It starts at the insistence of Greg's mom who makes Greg visit Rachel because she's just been diagnosed with leukemia. And in this scene, Greg, who's played by Thomas Mann, is standing in the foyer of Rachel's house at the foot of the stairs that lead up to Rachel's bedroom, and she's come out to see who's there - Rachel, who's played by Olivia Cooke - but she does not come down, and she tells him from the top of the stairs to go away.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL")
OLIVIA COOKE: (As Rachel) Look, I don't want you hanging out with me. I don't need your stupid pity. It's fine. You can just go.
THOMAS MANN: (As Greg) No, no, hey. You got it all wrong. I'm not here 'cause I pity you. I'm actually here just 'cause my mom is making me.
COOKE: (As Rachel) That's actually worse.
MANN: (As Greg) Yeah, I know.
COOKE: (As Rachel) Look, it's OK. Honestly, I'm fine. Just go.
MANN: (As Greg) OK. Rachel, just listen to me for a second. My mom is going to turn my life into a living hell if I don't hang out with you. OK, I can't overstate how annoying she's being about this. She's basically like the Lebron James of nagging. Lebron James plays basketball.
COOKE: (As Rachel) I know who Lebron James is.
MANN: (As Greg) OK.
SALE: (Laughter) I love this scene because you capture both the exasperated bluntness of being a teenager alongside this extreme self-consciousness. How much did you talk with your actors about what it was like to be in high school?
GOMEZ-REJON: Oh, we talked about it a lot. You know, I'm always curious to see who they were. What subgroup did they belong to? And I was very open about the subgroups that I belonged to because I changed quite a bit, and I think it was always like Greg. He wanted to get - he wanted passports to every society, every club. But I love this scene. I think this scene is one of the - it's - you know, it's five, ten pages into the script, and I just loved how honest he is. He's literally just telling her I am only here because my mom is making me, and that's so refreshing for someone like Rachel who you know she's gotten 100 calls that day saying, you know, sweetie you're going to beat this, one of those...
GOMEZ-REJON: ...Those things, and all of a sudden you have this kid who's just being so honest and then goes on to just entertain her and distract her.
SALE: So you said you charted Rachel's character?
SALE: Five phases?
SALE: We don't want to give away the end of the movie, but it's interesting that you're charting what the process is of going through sickness.
GOMEZ-REJON: Both Olivia and I did a lot of research at the Mattel wing, the pediatric wing at UCLA and at the Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh. And what was beautiful about that is that these are teen wings, and they treat these young adolescents like adults, and that was very important, and they have - sometimes the teenagers even have a say in the design of the space. They're not treated like infants. They could walk around. They could use the Internet. They have lounges, and we wanted all the details to be clear and specific so that we didn't fall into some kind of cliche accidentally, you know, and Olivia and I had a chart that broke down her character before her first chemotherapy treatment and the five that followed and where she was after. And plus where she was in her chemotherapy stages also influenced not only her physicality and kind of interior life but also a lot of the other departments, too. Clothes - you know, the sicker she gets, the more vibrant her patterns get, and so everything - everybody was working together, and hopefully it was in sync.
SALE: The first credit at the end of "Me Earl And The Dying Girl" is a dedication to your father, Julio Cesar Gomez Rejon. He died in 2010. How did losing him shape the way you approach this film? >>GOMEZ-REJON: Well, it's (laughter).
SALE: You can take your time.
GOMEZ-REJON: No, no. I'm just trying to - it's a big question, you know...
GOMEZ-REJON: ...Because when that happened - when I was having - I was - the reason why I identify with Greg so much is because I really was acting like a child in a lot of ways and maybe one does because whenever you lose your father or your parent, that relationship is always going to be that of a child to his parents, and so I was just in deep denial so I threw myself into my work, and I was so fortunate to have so much work thanks to Ryan Murphy and the "Glee's" and "American Horror Story's."
SALE: You were working in television.
GOMEZ-REJON: Yeah, and it was a chance to experiment, and I was being quite bold with the camera and assuming I was going to get fired immediately and just experimenting. But I didn't - I couldn't look at his photograph, and I didn't want to hear stories about him because the pain was so acute, and then people just assume it's time to move on. A year goes by, a second year, but you're not there yet and everyone takes their own time.
So it just - it was just emotional block and a barrier that I think I put up in order to survive but what was happening is that you sometimes don't think about him as much. And that's - you feel terrible about that because he was your best friend, and how do you move on? And he encouraged the arts and supported you and encouraged you to achieve excellence in what you were doing, and so when I read the script, I found a way to give all those emotions a shape, and it was an opportunity to go deep and to finally make something that expressed my deep love for him and gratitude the way Greg does for Rachel.
So if the message of the movie or the theme of the movie or the lesson that Mr. McCarthy played by Jon Bernthal teaches Greg is that even if someone dies, their life can continue to unfold, their story can continue to unfold. You just have to pay attention. And it's something I wanted to believe but didn't. And physically making the film, I started to believe that and be transformed by it and started to feel again and started to talk about him. And then by dedicating the film, it made that very public. And so Sundance was, to me, kind of what I thought would be the conclusion of a phase in my life, and the film was done, and now I was going to move on, and I put it aside and finally have something that showed my deep love.
But what it did, it started - it's new dialogue when you're forced into - you're asked questions point-blank about him, just like you did now, and then you start talking about him, and then you start seeing him everywhere again, and I needed to make this movie to work through those feelings and doing it in the only way that I knew how was to do it through images and by making a film as a way to express that gratitude.
SALE: You grew up in Laredo, Texas, right along the Mexico border. How did you discover movies?
GOMEZ-REJON: I was always a fine artist. I was always drawing constantly drawing and drawing and drawing and drawing. And HBO was new, and I was watching that, and MTV was new, and I just responded to that medium. And then the VHS revolution started in the early '80s, and they opened one down the street from me.
SALE: A video store?
GOMEZ-REJON: Oh, yeah. It was called Video Hut, and the first thing I bought was "The Making Of Michael Jackson's Thriller," and - which I will dance for you now, with your permission.
GOMEZ-REJON: No, but you finally saw John Landis directing, and that was always exciting. You never saw that happen before. I think - there was - I think there was one little one about the making of "Temple Of Doom," and Spielberg was there. I mean, you can see Spielberg deciding the shots. I still didn't understand it. Then a friend's older brother - my brother was into music, so I knew everything about Russia and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but I knew very little - and then Iron Maiden - and but I knew very little about anything else. My friend's older brothers would sometimes lend me their VHS of "Apocalypse Now," and I was struck by the size and the scope of it. But - and then I started to discover Scorsese, and that changed my life because I think I might even - I started out of order. So I think "Raging Bull," which I had heard of, and the craft and the boxing sequences and how, you know, and how simple some of the dialogue sequences are and how magnificent. I mean, it's just a perfect movie. But "Mean Streets" was a game changer for me because it was deeply, deeply personal to me. It was the first time I saw that kind of Catholic - the kind of religious iconography documented in a very contemporary setting. I was questioning that, and I was a kid going to Catholic high school. I had never seen that before, and I saw in some ways myself in Charlie. In some ways, I saw my brother in Johnny. For some reason, it made a connection to me, and I realized that that was something that was happening that I had never been witness to before. And that started me on that Scorsese journey in watching his films and then learning about the history of movies through him and through his movies and interviews, what little I could find.
When I got my driver's license, I would drive to Corpus Christi but mainly to San Antonio and they had - there was a theater called The Crossroads there. It was an art house theatre so you can see a lot of movies. I'd go on a weekend, see six movies and come back. And I applied to NYU because he went there, and I got in, and that let me to that journey because he just - he opened me up to a world of film history, and that is - be kind of different - a new kind of obsession.
SALE: Did you make movies when you were a teenager?
GOMEZ-REJON: Not very many. I was always drawing storyboards before I knew they were storyboards. And my parents thought it was a phase, so they wouldn't buy me a camera and plus, they were very expensive back then when they first started coming out. So my friend, Gina, lent me her camera, and we used to do little projects for her. It was - because I was so intensely shy, I loved the fact that I could make a project for French class or English class and have that be my way of doing the work, so I didn't have to, like, stand in front of the class or anything like that. But it really wasn't until NYU that I realized that maybe I wasn't awful, because I enjoyed it so much and I enjoyed film history so much. And I was so intimidated by everybody in my class because of where I had come from - where I came from and my limited experience in production.
SALE: When you announced your intentions to go to college at NYU to study film because you wanted to follow in the footsteps of Martin Scorsese, how did that go over at home?
GOMEZ-REJON: It went great. Well, my parents always encouraged the arts, but, of course, they wanted us all to be doctors, probably.
SALE: Your father was a psychiatrist.
GOMEZ-REJON: Yes. And he - but more than a psychiatrist, he dedicated his life to reducing the stigma of mental health and started the first mental health/mental retardation center on the border. It dealt with multiple personality, schizophrenia. He was really - and with deep, deep compassion and humanity, just an incredible - and humor, which is so important - that this film is so funny. You know, I think, because of that, my brother became a musician. My sister became a fine artist. And I was the third and the last, and I always wanted to be a filmmaker, so I think they helped break down those walls. They made it easier for them, but it was frightening for them, as it - and it was frightening for me. And I'd be scared, too. I was 17, going off to New York. But after I made that decision and it was clear that I was serious about it, all they did was support me.
DAVIES: Filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon speaking with guest contributor Anna Sale. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to guest contributor Anna Sale's interview with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. His new film, "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl," won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
SALE: Right after college, where you went to film school at NYU, you got a job working in Martin Scorsese's office.
GOMEZ-REJON: Yes. It was during my last year, as a senior.
SALE: So as a senior in college, you get this job at Martin Scorsese's office. What was that like?
GOMEZ-REJON: At first, it was torture because I guess his office - his assistants wanted to make sure that I was worthy of having around. So I'd come into the office and start doing filing or whatever. And then when Marty would show up, they'd send me off to the Xerox room.
GOMEZ-REJON: And I wasn't allowed to see him. They weren't - they weren't ready to introduce me or introduce a new element into his life until I was - they were certain that I was worthy of that. Or I'd be - Marty's coming, so they'd ship me off to his incredible mom's house, and I'd hang pictures for her, run errands for her or whatever.
SALE: You would help his mom.
GOMEZ-REJON: Oh, yeah, you know, it would just be she needs someone to hang pictures on her wall or whatever it was - run errands. They just didn't want me around for a while, and they were just getting to know me. But I guess they started to like me and thought I was good enough to have around for a bit longer. And then, little by little, you were let out (laughter), and you'd see him and he'd nod at you. And then - it was incremental. And then you'd cover the phones, and then you'd watch a movie. Or you'd go with him and accompany him as he introduces the - I don't know - the "Apu Trilogy" at the Lincoln Cinemas or something. And then you get comfortable, and then he gets comfortable. And - but all along, there's always - you're always being introduced to film, and you had access. We had 25,000 or 30,000 videos on laser disk. You could check everything out - your own private video store. And so if you reference something obscure, you can probably watch it that night.
SALE: You were Martin Scorsese's assistant during the filming of "Casino"...
SALE: ...Which came out in 1995. What did you learn about filmmaking from watching him that you hadn't learned by watching all of these movies?
GOMEZ-REJON: You - that's the dream - to see the master at work. You know, you're sitting back, and you're watching, you know, da Vinci or somebody - Jackson Pollock. Whoever it is, you're watching them work and seeing that creative process and how - what music he was listening to and the sketches that he's making on the page and how he's realizing those and making them real and communicating his vision and how uncompromising he is, but how generous he was and humble he was throughout.
Sometimes, I would do something really silly. Every morning, you get the sides, which is the day's work, in, like - I don't know - like, postcard-sized sheets of - you know, it's like they reduce the script into, like, a postcard size, and you have that as a reference. So I'd always sketch my own version of the storyboards. Like, how would I approach the scene today? And I would sketch them, and I would usually put them in my pocket with the drawings facing out, hoping that he would ask (laughter). Never did. Why would he? You know, he's making a movie. But I would always then compare what what my approach would be to his approach and then learn from that and realize that I know nothing and understand why his approach was this because it's going to connect to the next scene and the one that comes before because he plans it out so carefully, like this beautiful puzzle.
But more than that, I just learned to just be quiet, be a ninja and just be there - be there for whatever he needs and be invisible when you're not needed, but soak everything up and hoping that, in the future, you're armed with some of that knowledge. But ultimately, the way he sees the world will be different that the way I do, and that's important, as well. The last thing I would want - him to see a movie and I think all I did was his style 'cause I see other directors copy his - copy his style, and I'm very upset about that.
SALE: Does he know that you would put the postcards in your pocket face-out?
GOMEZ-REJON: No, I don't think so. I don't think so. I may tell him at some point, but (laughter) it's so silly, too.
SALE: It's sweet.
GOMEZ-REJON: It is sweet. I was young. I was (laughter) - I was 21, but it was quite a very young 21.
SALE: I wonder if you could describe growing up in Laredo, Texas. What were you like as a teenager?
GOMEZ-REJON: It's Laredo, Texas, but it's also - Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, on the Mexican side, was - it was really one city. And my existence - I lived on both. Even though I was raised on the American side, all my family was on the Mexican side. My grandparents were on the Mexican side. So you'd go back and forth daily. My parents - they didn't let us speak English at home so we wouldn't forget the language. They were always encouraging the arts and taking us to see musical theater in Mexico City or San Antonio - wherever it was - always museums. They were very unusual, very progressive for that town, as well - very liberal.
But as a kid, I think it was - and I only can answer this question because I've been thinking about it because of the nature of this film. I was kind of a straight A, very square kid. And I was always a year, year and a half younger than everybody else, and that gap is enormous. It's like a generation when you're still 12, and your friends are turning 14 or 13. And you're still so young, and you're a late bloomer. And that's when I started to feel quite isolated because everyone was moving on and having girlfriends and everything, and I'm not. So that - I don't even know how I got through those few years, but movies got me through them. I experienced so much life through them. And I was afraid to sleep in the dark, so I'd stay up all night. And then Letterman, of course - and I was just kind of a bit of a hermit. And then once I started to catch up with my friends, I started to get my confidence back. And at that point, because of those tough years leading up to that, I'd already decided that I was going to be a director - applied early admission. So I finished strong, and I think I was vice president of the class, right? Then I became, like, popular. I finished as a popular kid, so I think I transformed a few times.
SALE: You were afraid of the dark?
GOMEZ-REJON: Yeah, it was awful.
SALE: So you watched movies...
GOMEZ-REJON: ...To stay awake. And then when I couldn't stay awake any longer, I'd sneak into my sister's bed or sleep in the back of the chaise lounge in my parents' bedroom. And then when my mom's alarms clock would go on, I would race back to my bed and then wait for them to wake me up, so I was acting I guess.
GOMEZ-REJON: I did this for a while. I don't know. Yeah, I did. That explains the bags under my eyes.
SALE: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is the director of "Me, Earl And The Dying Girl." Thank you so much for talking with me.
GOMEZ-REJON: Thank you so much for having me.
DAVIES: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon speaking with guest contributor Anna Sale. Sale is host of Death, Money and Sex, a podcast from WNYC. Coming up, John Powers reviews a reworking of Albert Camus' novel "The Stranger." This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Journalist Kamel Daoud is one of Algeria's best-known writers. He's now gaining international recognition for his debut novel, "The Meursault Investigation," which is a reworking of Albert Camus's classic work, "The Stranger." The book's won three literary prizes in France, but also prompted an Islamist politician in Algeria to call for his execution. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says it's a book that should be taught side-by-side with "The Stranger."
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back in college English, I was taught that it was a foolish error to think that fictional characters have any reality beyond the page. You shouldn't speculate about how many children Lady Macbeth had or what job Holden Caulfield wound up doing as a grown-up. Well, maybe not, but over the last half-century, actual fiction writers have enjoyed lifting characters from famous books and fleshing-out their lives. You know, Jean Rhys telling the back story of Rochester's mad wife from "Jane Eyre" in "Wide Sargasso Sea," or Tom Stoppard making bleak comedy out of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from "Hamlet." The best of these works reveal truths hidden in the original books and give voice to those kept silent. Few writers have done this so skillfully as the Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud. In his first novel, "The Meursault Investigation," he reworks a text that almost everybody has to study in school - "The Stranger" by Albert Camus - himself born and raised in colonial Algeria. This tour de force forever changes the way you see Camus's novel. You may recall that "The Stranger" is narrated by a French-Algerian named Meursault, who begins the book by half-heartedly attending his mother's funeral. Not long after, he goes to the beach, and for reasons even he can't explain, winds up shooting a young man he calls the Arab. Meursault is convicted of murder. Not for shooting an innocent Arab, mind you - the French routinely got away with that in their colonies - but because the DA basically prosecutes him for not properly loving or mourning his mother. Meursault's motiveless crime and the irrational reasons for his convictions made Camus's novel a classic expression of Existentialist notions about the individual's confrontation with an absurd universe.
Daoud's book stands Camus on his head. It's narrated by Harun, the brother of Meursault's victim, who was 7 when his older brother was shot down. Now an old man in present-day Algeria, Harun offers a version of events that anchors this murder in history, not cosmic philosophy. It becomes a form of restitution. For starters, Meursault's victim is spared the indignity of being a mere prop in his own murder. He's given the dignity of a name, Musa, after simply being called the Arab, a word used 25 times in "The Stranger." And he's given the dignity of a personality as well. He's a strong young man with a taste for women. His death, which Camus's book isn't remotely interested in, is shown to alter his family's life for decades. Musa's mother becomes obsessed with her dead son, eventually forcing Harun to exact a brand of vengeance.
In simple terms, "The Meursault Investigation" spotlights the historical realities of colonialism that "The Stranger" left in the shadows. But Daoud's too canny to be satisfied with simply critiquing Camus. He also learned from Camus, especially his ideas about individual responsibility. What makes Daoud's book so good is that, steeped in independent thinking, it offers an illuminating, if controversial, portrait of today's Algeria. To that end, Daoud invents a second murder - this time of a Frenchman who pointedly is named - and this crime's ripples lead Harun to ruminate on Algeria's tragically absurd history. Even as Harun acknowledges the soul-warping tyranny of French rule, he uses history to ponder how the Algerians themselves have made a mess of things since independence in 1962. They've devoured the countryside to no good purpose, fetishized an earlier generation of freedom fighters, and fallen into a fervent Islamism that keeps them backward. Religion is public transportation I never use, Harun tells us jauntily, presumably echoing Daoud's own sentiments.
Not surprisingly, such lines have made Daoud enemies in Algeria, where there have been the now-routine calls for his death. Of course, such an excessive response to a fine novel only serves to underscore the historical absurdity that "The Meursault Investigation" is talking about. Harun may be wiser, more conscious and more humane than Meursault, but these two fictional characters share one important quality in common with the real-life Kamel Daoud - walking the streets and beaches of their Algerian homeland, they all feel like strangers.
DAVIES: John Powers is Film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "The Meursault Investigation" by Kamel Daoud, published in English by Other Press.
On tomorrow's show, we'll speak with two people intimately involved in an effort to help men in the Watts community in L.A. - many of them, former gang members with criminal records - to become better fathers. Mike Cummings is a former gang member, now a pastor and co-leader of the group.
MIKE CUMMINGS: We just have standing-room only now. You know, it's something that they said wasn't going to work.
DAVIES: We'll also speak with his partner in the program, UCLA social welfare professor, Jorja Leap. Her new book is "Project Fatherhood." Hope you can join us.
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