An anonymous phone call from a mysterious woman signaled the beginning of a two year odyssey for documentary producer Jaimie D’Cruz. Here he charts the behind the scenes story of the making of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop
Mysterious call from a woman claiming to represent Banksy. Apparently the notoriously anonymous artist wants to make a film and thinks I may be able to help. Considering that countless film-makers have been turned down in their approaches to Banksy, plus the fact that I haven’t made such a request myself, this seems an unlikely proposition. I naturally dismiss it as a crank call and carry on with the crossword where I am having trouble with 5 down.
February 2008 a bit later
Get another call, this time from a man claiming to actually be Banksy. Maybe this is for real after all. Over a decade earlier, in my incarnation as a journalist specialising in what is loosely known as “underground culture” I had briefly met Banksy, then an unknown (but already super-secretive) graffiti artist. However in the intervening years he had become so famous for his stunts and his anonymity that I had subsequently decided that I must have imagined this encounter.
February 2008 a bit later still
Meet Banksy in a London pub where he lays out his pitch: a French guy called Thierry has been filming him for a year or two. (Filming him? How?! Why?!). In fact he has been filming everyone. For years. Apparently “French Terry”, who has lived in LA for over twenty years, is a legend in the street art world, and has an unbelievable archive of all the big names (and a lot of the lesser known ones too) at work. Now Banksy has taken the first steps toward making a film about Thierry. I think this is a very strange idea. Who would want to watch a film about an unknown French guy called Thierry? Banksy says that I need to meet Thierry.
A package of video tapes turn up at my office: a mixture of tapes shot by Thierry and tapes shot of Thierry. He seems like a funny and engaging character. But I am still not sure why Banksy has suggested that Thierry becomes an artist when he seems perfectly happy being a film-maker.
March 2008 a bit later
Receive a DVD of Thierry’s film. It is 90 minutes long and it’s called Life Remote Control. I now understand why Banksy has suggested that his friend Thierry re-focuses his energies in a different direction.
Meet Chris King for coffee. Chris is one of the best editors in the UK documentary business and is always busy. However he is intrigued by the idea of Banksy’s pitch and agrees to come in for a couple of weeks. We go through the bag of tapes. It is clear that Thierry is a natural-born character: funny, likeable and clearly insane.
Bank Holiday Weekend, early May 2008
Banksy has commandeered a tunnel in central London to stage a huge stencil art event, The Cans Festival. He has invited some of the world’s best-known street artists to come and take part. He has also invited Thierry over as a kind of practice run for his own show. Thierry arrives in London and I start filming with him. During his few days in town, Thierry seems enthusiastic about the idea of Banksy taking over his film, and he promises that all the tapes of his years of filming are in the process of being sent to London so we can begin viewing and editing.
I am confused. I can see the appeal of a film about Thierry – he’s a brilliant character. But an art show? Thierry tells me that when Banksy suggested to him that he might try to become an artist himself, he thought it was “a genius idea”. He has rented a huge space in Hollywood for his debut show which will be called Life is Beautiful, and he has recruited a team of people who have been helping him over the last few weeks, making the art which will fill its cavernous multi-floored interior. He has adopted the name of Mister Brainwash (MBW) and he has decided to open on June 18th. A month from now!
Phone discussions about shooting style with B+, an LA-based photographer and film-maker. He and his crew will document the behind-the-scenes action in the build up of Thierry’s show in LA.
Various conversations with Thierry on the phone; he is terrified that his show will not be ready in time. But he is also adamant that it will be. He is a big believer in fate and he insists that whatever happens he cannot lose. He “can only go up”.
June 1st 2008
B+ calls. “You’ll never fucking believe it dude. Thierry fell off a ladder and broke his fucking leg.” Brilliant – did you get it on tape? “Nope.” However, B+ and his boys did rush over to LA’s Cedars Sinai hospital to film Thierry having his leg X-Rayed and being seen by a doctor. Thankfully one of Thierry’s helpers captured the ladder incident on a stills camera.
Chris King starts working full time on the tapes. He has been booked for three months. The only problem is that none of the promised new tapes have arrived. Thierry says he is still trying to sort them out. He isn’t quite sure where they are, or how many there are, or what’s on the ones he has got. And he says he has to make copies of all of them before sending them. I tell him that will take too long and he just has to take a leap of faith and send them.
June 2008, a bit later
Still no tapes. Banksy sends a friend to LA get them.
Mid June 2008
I fly to LA to film the final run up to the show opening. Banksy’s special envoy, despatched from London a week earlier to get the tapes is still in LA and is encountering some resistance. The struggle to part Thierry from his treasured backlog has been going on since Banksy first came up with the idea of swapping places with him. The rational side of Thierry understands that we need the tapes, but his emotional attachment to them has led to months of prevarication and stalling from the Frenchman. However, the moment of truth is upon us: no tapes – no film. Luckily Thierry has got enough on his plate getting his show ready and the envoy finally prevails and heads back to London with 700 or so hours of material for Chris in the edit.
Over the week I am in LA I get to understand more about who Thierry is. He operates from the centre of an intense group of family and friends – all of whom seem to be French Jewish émigrés, it’s like Paris with palm trees. I realise why Thierry’s English is so sketchy. He may have lived in LA for 20 plus years, but he has never really left France. Beyond his inner circle he has a gang of young talented guys and a highly skilled screen-printer called Celeste, turning out a never-ending stream of art. The operation is based out of an incredible studio equipped with professional looking screen-printing equipment and chock full of “stuff” being turned into art works (hundreds of TV sets, eight foot high stacks of warped vinyl records, literally thousands of single shoes which Thierry purchased as a job lot…)
Thierry seems to have built up a wildly varying body of work, from gigantic sculptures to spray painted bed sheets to tinkered-with oils on canvas to endless Photo-Shopped screen-prints of iconic images. It’s like someone went into a gallery with a giant Hoover, sucked up tons of art and spat out less substantial versions of them at the other end. The references are there in plain sight: Space Invader, Shepard, Monsieur Andre, Zeus, lots of Banksy and a good dash of Warhol.
June 16th 2008
Go to show venue and meet Roger Gastman, a street art expert (ex-graffiti writer, publisher, journalist, curator) who Banksy drafted in to help Thierry out with the production. We can both see that there is absolutely no way on earth this show is going to be ready for the opening. It’s definitely going to be a total disaster.
June 18th 2008
Thierry’s show is an outstanding success. Thousands of people attend. Thierry’s wife Debora tells me it is their wedding anniversary. But Thierry didn’t realise this when he planned the show. He isn’t good with dates.
Late June 2008
Back in London and Chris is getting stuck into Thierry’s tapes. Chris has Rainman-like powers of recall and an intuitive ability to spot the relevance of a tape as he watches it. Which is fortunate as the tapes are unlabelled, unordered and seemingly random. Some tapes have no audio. Some have no picture. Some have neither. We find multiple coverage of single events as Thierry often covers the action on two – sometimes three – cameras. When we find a tape that is labelled, the information is usually misleading or cryptic and dates, where they appear, are unreliable. By getting some key dates from Thierry’s wife (when they were married, when the kids were born etc) we start to work out when things took place by cross-referencing wherever we can.
Through the painstaking process of working through the tapes, the faint shape of a story slowly begins to emerge. Some key moments are revealed; when Thierry stumbles across his cousin who is, unbeknown to him, a leading anonymous street artist going by the name of Space Invader; the moment when Thierry meets Shepard Fairey for the first time…. And of course the big moment when he somehow persuaded Banksy to let himself be filmed in LA.
Still unsure how far Thierry’s tapes will take us we start shooting other interviews for the film. Some of these are with friends of Banksy, speaking about him for the first time (Damien Hirst, 3D from Massive Attack). Some are with critics, art world people, other graffiti artists, even a barrister. I also start to film master interviews with Banksy. After all it’s his story. He is initially uncomfortable being on camera but he is very funny, and another natural. Starting to feel this film might actually have legs – it’s a straight up two hander with a great back-story, some funny supporting characters and a ridiculous present tense narrative to boot.
With the main blocks of the story in place we now know what to ask Thierry, and shoot the first master interview with him in LA. As we go through the interview tapes back in London some incredible revelations emerge. Thierry admits he was obsessed with filming because it was a way for him to ‘preserve’ the lives of the people who were important to him. Having lost his mother at an early age he was trying to take control of his life by filming everything. It was his way to make sure, as he puts it, that “those moments would live forever”. Thierry also admits that far from trying to make the film everyone assumed he was making, his unwatched tapes, once shot, were locked away in boxes, never to be seen again. At last we understand why it was so difficult persuading Thierry to hand over his tapes.
Shoot master interview with Shepard Fairey in LA. Interesting stuff about the relationship between him and Thierry. Basically Shepard allowed Thierry to follow him around for 6 or 7 years. It had never dawned on him that Thierry had never seriously intended to finish his film. For Thierry, the filming was an end in itself.
Still blocking out the story, Banksy is happy with the way that the film is shaping up, but he is concerned that with the story gathering its own pace there doesn’t seem to be space to fit in the street art story itself in. We have a good archive of old footage but the sequences we are cutting from it seem out of place somehow. Banksy suggests that we make one short sequence which tells the whole story in a minute.
With the back-story more or less blocked out we start getting into our own footage of Thierry getting his show together. It’s a moment we have been a bit apprehensive of. We are jumping from telling Thierry’s story through his own material to telling it though our material. We aren’t sure what device we’ll use to signpost that handover. But as it turns out the transition seems to sit quite smoothly. No signposting needed…. Maybe?
Banksy’s notes are getting more in-depth. I think initially he thought it would be interesting to see what happened if he suggested that Thierry make some art and have a show; but I don’t think he guessed for a minute how far Thierry would go. When we had first met and I had expressed my doubts about his concept, Banksy had told me that at the very least we would end up with a nice five minute clip for you tube. I think we’re all realising that events have acquired their own momentum and that from here on we just have to run and try to keep up with the story.
For a while now Banksy has had Bristol drum and bass legend Roni Size composing music for us. He now gets Geoff Barrow from Portishead involved too. With Roni Size and Geoff Barrow scoring original tracks we have some of Britain’s best musical talent on board.
The overall narrative is pretty much in place. It has a weird beginning, a bizarre middle and a frankly unbelievable end. Now we start fine cutting and refining the narration script. Already the talking heads are pretty much gone, discarded on the cutting room floor. All that remains of the master interviews is actual testament from those directly involved in the story. It’s encouraging that we haven’t in the end needed to rely on cutting away to generic interviews to tell the story about wider issues such as Banksy’s relevance, the origins of graffiti or street art’s crossover into the big money art world. Thierry’s tapes and the story they tell, plus the broader narrative of his art show seem to be a compelling enough story in its own right.
“Last” tapes from Thierry turn up. All throughout the editing period we have been calling up more tapes from Thierry, usually in response to specific holes in the story. For example when we needed more videos of general family scenes, or more tapes of Thierry’s first foray into making his own art, or old pictures of Thierry as a kid. But Thierry has from time to time unearthed another box of tapes and shipped it over. This last batch of tapes includes Thierry’s footage of Banksy’s 2006 ‘Guantanamo Bay’ stunt at Disneyland. What a find.
Still shooting master interviews with Banksy. Naturally, as someone who works with the power of images, he is all over the composition of the shot and I have to keep stopping recording to play back for him so he can see the frame. After a few experiments he wants me to shoot the interview back-lit so he is in silhouette, wearing a black hoodie. To be on the safe side he has also decided to wear a ski mask under his hoodie. That should do it! This will end up being the main interview set-up used in the film (the mid-shot with the monkey mask in the case) along with another wider back-lit shot in his studio.
Having only signed on for three months Chris has been turning down film after film to extend his availability to us and, finally, an immoveable commitment means he has to finish after a mammoth ten month edit. It’s a blessing really as we could be rough cutting forever. With this impetus we finish the main ‘offline’ edit and lock the picture.
A new editor, Tom Fulford comes in for just “a couple of weeks” cleaning up and recuts. Just fine cutting really. Or so we think. Late addition of another interview (with Space Invader) shot in London. The picture is unlocked!
Up to this point only those directly involved in making the film have seen it. Naturally we are working in highly secretive conditions, but now we hold a couple of small screenings for two or three friends at a time to gauge reactions.
As the film edges slowly towards completion Banksy is becoming more focussed on the minutiae. For me it’s a very unconventional way to make a film. He is not just one of the main contributors, it is also his idea and his film. But probably the most unusual aspect of the production is that there doesn’t seem to be any urgency. At one point he explains to me that when you finish a painting the thing to do is leave it for a bit and come back to it later. There is no equivalent in the world I am used to when there is always a commissioning editor breathing down your neck or a broadcast deadline looming. But that doesn’t apply here. Hardly anyone even knows we are making a film!
What shall we call it? No one sure what the title should be. Banksy likes Exit Through The Gift Shop. Seems a bit leftfield to me. Begin cutting a title sequence. Banksy is adamant that as well as the minute-long street art sequence in the film, we need a big street art sequence up front. Ironically Thierry’s footage, amazing and bizarre as it is, is fairly sketchy on actual art being done. We start to trawl for footage, putting out the word in the street art community: if you did it and shot it we want it for a “graffiti’s greatest hits” title sequence.
Thierry flies over from LA to watch the film for the first time. Everyone nervous. He declares it to be “the best film I have ever seen in my life.” Thierry then tells us that he has been commissioned by Madonna to do the cover art for her new album. Can this be real?
Recuts, fine cuts, addition of a couple of shots from yet more new tapes brought over by Thierry (so the last “last” tapes weren’t the last ones after all).
Fine cutting continues. Tom’s “couple of weeks” of fine cutting is now in its fifth month. Shepard Fairey is in London briefly and comes in to watch the film. He likes it a lot which is a relief and puts to rest one of the elephants which has been hanging around in the room; the film which started off being Thierry’s film about Shepard has now morphed into Banksy’s film about Thierry. Surreal moment driving through London with Banksy and Shepard when we suddenly spot a gigantic billboard for the new Madonna album displaying a forty foot high image of her by Thierry/MBW. It’s all getting a bit meta.
Fine fine cutting; we’re really just tinkering now. Picture lock again. Online and grade begins. Really need to decide the title of the film.
Bombshell drops. It turns out that since seeing it in July, Thierry now thinks he may have some issues with the film and he flies back in to see it again, this time with his entourage. He can’t put his finger on what exactly he doesn’t like. But he does say, ominously, that it is a great film, “except for the end”. Everything suddenly feeling a bit wobbly.
Thierry arrives back in London with a bag of tapes. He has some ideas he says. My heart sinks. Over the next couple of weeks Thierry flies in and out of London and we try to accommodate his ideas which turn out not to be ideas at all. Painful as it is, this process is not without entertainment value. Thierry has a natural gift of speaking as if prompted by a very witty screenwriter living inside his head – he’s full of lofty quasi-philosophical observations which he really, actually means. Completely genuine and totally lacking any sense of irony, Thierry may seem silly but he takes himself very seriously.
Banksy is getting more frustrated. He, like all of us, has great affection for Thierry and doesn’t want to him to be upset. On the other hand it is becoming increasingly difficult to take his erratic suggestions seriously. This is Thierry after all we have to keep reminding ourselves – the crazy Frenchman who had never done an art show in his life. Yet now he is telling us that the film may damage his “reputation” as an artist.
We tell Thierry to relax and leave the film making to us. Finally he disappears back to LA, his attentions thankfully diverted by the need to prepare work for his new, even bigger show he has coming up in New York.
Banksy has created a Frankenstein.
Banksy has brought in actor Rhys Ifans for the film’s narration. Rhys’s off-key fruity wryness fits the tone of the story well. We are still cutting the title sequence. We’ve managed to get a good selection of bare-faced vandalism from our trawl of footage online and elsewhere, but it’s been a bit of a struggle. It’s incredible how little footage exists, and it shows just how invaluable Thierry’s “rooftop years” really were in documenting the key events of a movement which may never have been caught on tape otherwise.
We really really need to decide the name. Exit Through the Gift Shop it is. Screening for potential distributors in the UK. Loads of them come. The film seems to be well received, but everyone appears to think it’s a hoax. Not quite sure what to make of this.
Banksy turns up in Park City, Utah where the Sundance Film Festival is held and donates a few unsolicited artworks to the city’s walls. The press are immediately enthralled. A few days later Exit Through the Gift Shop receives its world premiere at the festival with an unannounced surprise screening. Almost immediately an incredible consensus starts to emerge both in the press and the blogosphere: Exit is a hoax! While the reactions seem almost entirely positive and full of praise for the film, no one seems willing to believe that we have told is true story. It’s a bizarre position to find ourselves in. it’s hard to gain a critical distance from something you’ve been so immersed in but it had never really occurred to us that the film might not be believed. I guess people – film critics in particular – are scared of looking foolish if they were to praise the film as a documentary only for it to be revealed later on as a hoax. Most commentators seem to have come up with a variation of the idea that while they of course realise it is all a “clever spoof” or a “wry faux documentary”, Exit still has interesting things to say about life, the power of hype and the commodification of art etc. Some of the more outlandish theories suggest that Thierry IS Banksy. Others speculate that Banksy, Shepard and Invader got together, cooked up the idea of Thierry and then created him as a way of exposing the shallowness of the art world. Most commentators suspect that at the very least, Banksy played a much more active hand in the transformation of Thierry from loveable eccentric to art world sensation than in fact he did. I find this puzzling because Banksy’s involvement is clearly documented in the film which explains that it was Banksy’s idea in the first place for Thierry to try to put on his own art show; likewise that Banksy stepped in, enlisting Roger Gastman and co. to help when it all looked like it might spiral out of control; and that he gave a quote to the LA Weekly which fuelled speculation that Thierry was “Banksy-endorsed”. But even Banksy couldn’t have created that outcome. Nor I suspect would he have chosen to.
Banksy and his crew build a cinema in a derelict railway arch in central London to show the film to proper audiences for the first time. It’s an incredible transformation and once they have constructed an amazing 150 seat cinema complete with original velvet-covered Victorian music hall seating (bought on e-bay), they fill the space with Banksy’s pieces including some of the animatronics from his Village Pet Store in New York and the Bristol City Museum show from last summer, as well as a riot ice cream van handing out popcorn and wine. Over 2 weeks the film plays twice a day to general audiences, journalists, crew and friends.
Meanwhile in New York, Thierry’s new show Icons opens. Bigger and bolder than Life Is Beautiful, the new show is an immediate sensation. The same night Icons opens in New York, we unveil Exit at the Berlin International Film Festival. The co-incidence of these two unrelated events is claimed by some to be further evidence of the elaborate hoax!
Exit opens nationwide in the UK. Low-key word of mouth screenings are held in a few key American cities. By now the film seems to be earning a global reputation as a spoof documentary of epic proportions. It’s a hard charge to react to – on the one hand it is fantastic that the story is considered to be so unbelievable that it must all be one giant hoax. But on the other hand, it’s only a powerful story because it is true. This is all testament to Banksy’s original insight. He saw that Thierry would make a compelling subject for a documentary because Thierry is genuinely unique. But the corollary of that uniqueness is that no one can believe Thierry is a real person! Whatever the case, Banksy’s reputation as an international prankster means that it is useless to protest. We’ve gone from the Emperor’s New Clothes to The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Exit’s US premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre in downtown LA. The theatre which is semi-derelict an
d normally only used as a location is perfect – despite the fact that it takes us three days to make it capable of actually projecting a film.
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Postscript: September 2010
With Exit in its sixth month of release in the United States and more screens scheduled to open all over the world, the art career of MBW goes from strength to strength