The Painter

Among the many short films were released last year, one that definitely stood out among the crowd and that we have covered before on S & A was The Painter.

Written and directed by Kevin Cooper, a film and TV commercial producer previously based in L.A. and who’s now an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago Film School, the film, which was produced by Deanna Cooper and executive produced by Emil Arab, deals with a young boy who lives in a world where violence surrounds him and his sole means of survival is to escape through his art.

After extensively traveling through the film festival circuit last year, including the Chicago International Film Festival, Urbanword LA Shorts Fest and the Athens International Film Festival and picking up several “Best Of” awards along the way, the film is now screening in the PBS Shorts Showcase Film Festival where viewers have their chance to watch and vote for the The Painter through July 31 on the PBS Showcase website HERE. The winners will be announced at the Annual Gala held this fall at The Show in Rancho Mirage, California.

And last week we had an opportunity to talk to writer and director Kevin Cooper about the film, why he was compelled to make it, what he hopes people will get out from the film and what he learned himself during the process.

SERGIO: So let's get to it. Why did you decided to move into teaching while still producing films?

COOPER: I had been living in Los Angeles and had been teaching there, but there are a lot of reasons. First of all in L.A., I had worked with a lot of directors, but I had not really practiced my craft. So with teaching it allows me to re-familiarize myself with the discipline of directing. And the other reason was that it just feels good. It feels good to give back to the film community that hopefully will result in inspiring my students to make films. And I think because of the competitive nature that exists now in the marketplace, with so many films out there, in some ways it's a bit selfish, but I hope that the people who I work with as students and those I mentor or as just friends, that we are making better films. (laughs)

SERGIO: So why The Painter? What was it about the script that made you say, "Yes I want to make this"?

COOPER: Well I was relatively new to Chicago and I love Chicago. It's a really cool city. But with everything that you fall in love with, you find out that it's great but there are things about it that could be better. I've lived in Los Angeles and in New York where I went to New York University's Film School so I thrive on the energy of a big city. But Chicago has this violence that I had not experienced in L.A. and New York. So, in a way, the film became a very personal journey to me. 

Being an outsider in the city and loving it and wanting to do something for it, it became intriguing for me. This crossroads that exist for us as artists and as activists, and feeling sort of guilty about how difficult it was for certain communities to survive, to simply be not dangerous. So I thought, "My God what can I do?" I kind of felt helpless until I thought maybe I ought to turn the lens on myself for moment and said, "So what can you do?" (laughs)

And I'm not so naive to think that this little film is going to change the world, but I think that's part of the problem. We have all these these huge issues in some of these neighborhoods, so we're all a little bit catatonic. We don't necessarily feel that we can make a difference. So this is just my small effort to join what is really a mounting group of people who are saying, "Hey, let's look at this issue and try to do something."

SERGIO: But why direct?

COOPER: So why direct? Because it was close to my heart on a personal level. The other thing was that it was an opportunity to practice what I wanted to do. In fact, the film was my sabbatical project, so it was a really nice opportunity for me. I mean I had done a lot in terms of producing but I still hadn't had the directing skills, so this allowed me to learn some new tools. I taught myself some new software in the process, so all of it allowed me to become more adept at directing.

SERGIO: And I'm sure you've been overwhelmed by the reaction The Painter has gotten. It's been shown in numerous film festivals and has won several awards and now it's in the PBS Short Film Showcase. This may sound like an odd question, but did you know what you had when you were making it, that it was going to be something special that would impact people, or were you thinking, "I hope I'm making something that's at least watchable"?

COOPER: (laughs) You've been doing this a long time, you know? Yeah, well I mentioned that I had taught myself some software. One of the pieces of software was something called 3D storyboarding software. I don't know if you knew this, but years ago I worked for SFX company called Digital Domain and I ran their development arm, so I had a lot of friends around me who had a technology background - digital artists, animators, editors and so on. And I am not a particularity technical person so I said at the beginning of this particular journey: "Teach yourself, get out of your comfort zone and teach yourself something new." 

So one of those was the 3D storyboarding software, which actually allowed me to make the film... (laughs) before I made the film. In other words, I created these very malleable images in 3D storyboards and I could cut to them together and put in music, etc. So in pre-production we did have some sense that we had something interesting rhythmically.

But then, of course as you were alluding to, the big question as we were getting closer to shooting was what was the "X" factor? What is the thing that could derail this and that was casting. And it wasn't really until we started working with our actor Ron Caldwell directly I realized that he was a very, very powerful actor even though he was young. So I think, in my mind, it was obvious to me that we were doing something kind of cool. But yeah, you never know if it's going to be a good move until you're done but we certainly had a good vibe going on.

SERGIO: What kind of research was done for The Painter?

COOPER: We did a lot of research in these high-risk neighborhoods in Chicago as well as working with a couple of non-profit organizations, and they bought people in from these neighborhoods and they were able to "shadow" us. So we had one or two people who shadowed me as the director, and one or two who shadowed the cinematographer, and so on. And I have to be honest with you, there was something about that was really great, that vibe when you know that you are giving back

SERGIO: Which leads me to ask, how do you personally feel about the response the film has gotten?

COOPER: Well it feels… (pause) like an extension of the film in a way. The role of an artist/activist, you kind of want anything you do to get a sort of reaction, and so the reaction the film has gotten was very much our goal. And as long as we can get people to see it maybe one person who views will say, "Yeah, I want to do something." And another one who sees it, "I think I would like to contribute some solution." If we keep building like that then it was worth all the effort.

SERGIO: And finally the always obvious last question, what's next?

COOPER: Something that's really important that I want to mention in the sort of afterlife of The Painter, after it has done the film festival circuit and the awards and the PBS competition, is that we were given another opportunity to do another film about the subject, about the destructive nature of violence. I'm honored that we have been given another opportunity to make a similar kind of film and maybe make a different sort of splash.

To check out The Painter's website go HERE and below is the trailer for the film: