Producer/Writer/Director Barbara Multer-Wellin and Producer/Writer/Editor Jeffrey Abelson discuss editorial cartooning’s endangered future, the changing nature of mainstream American journalism and the many talents of Paul Conrad.
What led you to make PAUL CONRAD: Drawing Fire?
Barbara Multer-Wellin and Jeffrey Abelson: Conrad represents the kind of informed, involved, sometimes enraged citizen that we feel everyone should strive to be. As the saying goes, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” And Conrad's extraordinary ability to crystallize a complex political thought in a single frame is amazing. His cartoons make you laugh, get you riled up, sometimes even make you cry.
Multer-Wellin: I’ve always been fascinated by people who are fortunate enough to find what they love to do early in life and continue to pursue that passion as they grow older. Paul Conrad started cartooning in college and is still doing four cartoons a week at the age of 82.
Abelson: I came into the project after Barbara had shot the majority of the interviews, but was instantly enthralled, as two of my passions are hybrid art forms and thoughtful political muckraking—and Conrad is a pillar of both. I'd also been a longtime fan of his, as my interest in politics started when I moved to L.A. in the 1970s, during Conrad's heyday. He's a great artist and a deep thinker. A rock star of journalism.
How did you meet Paul Conrad?
Multer-Wellin: I interviewed Mr. Conrad for a film I produced seven or eight years ago about 20th-century American comedy. I’m a New Yorker by birth, so I didn’t grow up with Mr. Conrad’s trenchant cartoons in my daily paper. But the moment I saw his images of Nixon and Reagan, I was hooked, and felt he'd make an ideal subject for a documentary.
Abelson: I didn't actually meet him until I started editing the film. We went over to his house to rummage through his archive to scan hundreds of his best cartoons (out of around 10,000!). It's hard to say what was more amazing, the incredible breadth of his oeuvre and the wit and depth of thought it reflects, or the wit and charm of Conrad in person. Regardless, it was a real treat to become familiar with both.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Multer-Wellin: That answer is the same for just about every independent documentary producer I’ve ever heard of: “It’s the funding, stupid!” Finding money for independent documentaries is like climbing a glass mountain. Every time you think you’re almost to the top, you find yourself sliding back down. Happily, we were able to find enough funders who loved Conrad’s work and believed in his mission to complete the film.
Another challenge was finding ways to make static, black-and-white images come to life on the television screen and do justice to their artistic brilliance without sacrificing their political points. I think Jeffrey Abelson did a fabulous job editing more than 200 Conrad cartoons into the film.
Abelson: As Barbara says, it was finding a style and a rhythm for bringing the cartoons to life in a way that gave the viewer a sufficient sense of their power, but still keeping things moving. Having spent a lot of years working in music video, I felt a certain comfort level in finding evocative pieces of music and using them to drive cartoon montage to achieve our goals. Another challenge was selecting the right kind of archival footage to contextualize the times in which Conrad was cartooning, creating something of a political pop history of the past 50 years. And in general, to convey a substantive sense of Conrad's five decade-long career in 54 minutes.
You included several interviews with well-known figures in your film. How did you gain the trust of the people you interviewed and get them to open up on camera?
Multer-Wellin: I think if you ask people well-researched questions about subjects they love and are knowledgeable about, it’s very easy to get them to open up and talk to you.
Abelson: Barbara deserves all the credit for the wonderful interviews.
What has the audience response been so far? What did Paul Conrad’s family think of the film?
The Conrad family has been supportive of this project from the beginning. Paul Conrad’s wife and two of their children appear in the film, so I guess for them it’s almost like a home movie. They were all very pleased with the film. We included cartoons Mr. Conrad had done throughout his career, starting 60 years ago. He hadn’t seen some of the cartoons in the film for many years and he told us he was surprised how good some of them were. He’s a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, but he’s really a very modest man.
What do you think is the current state of political cartooning—and what do you think is in store for its future?
Editorial cartooning is an endangered profession. Years ago, almost every national newspaper had a staff cartoonist. Today there are only about 80 papers with full-time cartoonists; perhaps because cartoonists are by nature provocative and controversial and sometimes that results in the cancellation of subscriptions. But more and more cartoonists are posting their work on the Internet and we believe the editorial cartoon will always be with us in some form. After the events of September 11th, many cartoonists felt the chill of suppression of their freedom of expression. Some suggest it is unpatriotic to criticize our leaders during a time of war but, for most cartoonists, including Conrad, dissent is the highest form of patriotism.
When did you start and finish filming PAUL CONRAD: Drawing Fire? Do you have any updates about what the people in the film have been doing since filming ended?
Multer-Wellin: I asked Mr. Conrad if he would consider participating in this film on September 10, 2001. As funding came in, we filmed on and off through 2004. In 2005, Jeffrey Abelson came on as editor and producer. We finished the film in June 2006.
Abelson: The only relevant update is that Otis Chandler passed away a short while back. He was the iconic independent-minded publisher of the Los Angeles Times who, for 30 years, supported and protected Conrad's controversial work during his reign at the paper. He was a critical factor in Conrad's success.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Multer-Wellin: I wanted to interview a number of presidential press secretaries about the impact really abrasive editorial cartoons had on different presidents, but we were shooting in Washington D.C. the week President Reagan died. Suddenly no one in town had time to do anything but be interviewed about Reagan’s passing. Ron Nessen was the only ex-presidential press secretary we managed to get on tape. Timing!
Abelson: Conrad is also a life-long jazz musician (bass, piano). I thought it would be really cool to shoot him performing some of his favorite music, and use that to drive the cartoon montages, but we weren't able to afford the song licensing costs.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Multer-Wellin: I felt I had made a promise to the Conrad family when I first approached them about doing this film and I didn’t want to break that promise.
Abelson: Good film is art. Good art opens a connection between people. It's a privilege to be able to make films. No further motivation is needed.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public television was always the first and best choice for this film. It takes a certain level of political awareness and knowledge of history to really appreciate Conrad’s cartoons and we knew the PBS audience has those qualities.
What are your three favorite films?
Multer-Wellin: Three of many docs I admire: Super Size Me, My Architect and Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls.
Abelson: Politically themed feature films like The Parallax View and Reds, and illuminating docs like The Corporation.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Multer-Wellin: Patience, determination and a comfortable pair of shoes!
What sparks your creativity?
Multer-Wellin: Issues I feel we should pay attention to and care about.
Abelson: Waking up in the morning.
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