Director Chris Moukarbel wasn’t in New York City when Bansky embarked on his month-long residency in October 2013, unveiling a new piece of street art each and every day in one of the five boroughs. Still, Moukarbel was able to make a film about Banksy’s wild art spree by piecing together user-generated footage he found on the Internet. “HBO actually approached me about making the movie almost a month after he’d left town. So right from the beginning it was this archival project,” Moukarbel tells Co.Create. “It really was about uncovering a story that already taken place.”
That movie, Banksy Does New York, premieres on HBO November 17 and at least half of the film is made up of footage that Moukarbel sourced online from people who darted all over the city during Banksy’s Better Out Than In residency, eager to be the first to see his works of art after finding out where they were located via social media. Shooting mostly with their smartphones, the amateur videographers got great footage of all of the art as well as the drama surrounding some of the pieces like when some guys in East New York covered up Banksy’s beaver stencil and were charging people to see and photograph it and when some other guys pulled up to the Sphinx the artist placed in Willets Point, Queens, loaded it into the back of a van and took off with it.
Here, Moukarbel talks to Co.Create about the benefits of incorporating user-generated footage into a film (he did that, too, when he made the Chris Crocker doc Me @ The Zoo, another doc for HBO). He also reveals what Banksy thought of Banksy Does New York and how the artist’s people pitched in to help elevate his production.
Co.Create: The one thing that surprised me about Banksy Does New York was how well it was shot. I thought it might be difficult to watch with all of the user-generated content, but the footage was great. Were you surprised by the quality of the footage you were able to find?
Moukarbel: Absolutely. I think that we’re all sort of now trained to be videographers in a way. People are used to watching videos online. They’re familiar with basic stylistic techniques and making things make sense.
There is a husband-and-wife dogwalking duo–Kurt Brown and Julia Taylor–who provide some of the best moments with their self-shot footage. I enjoyed watching them discover everything and expressing their excitement like when they found Banksy’s roving Sirens of the Lambs slaughterhouse truck with all of the animatronic animals.
They’re totally unaware they’re going to become a part of the show, and it’s sort of an innocent process with them where they’re just shooting their experiences each day, and then as it turns out they’ve become a really big key in telling the story.
You and your crew also shot additional material, including interviews with reporters who followed the residency as it unfolded and art experts, to present a fuller picture of Banksy’s residency, and I was glad that you followed up on what became of the Sphinx.
Yeah. The second half of the film really turns over to our cameras. We’re telling Banksy’s story in terms of following up with where a lot of the story went after Banksy left town, so that was a more kind of traditional form of documentary storytelling.
What do you find interesting about Banksy’s work and how he presents it?
I think it’s the way that he hacks the media. He has this really interesting way of leveraging the media to tell his story or to contribute to or be a part of a piece, and they oftentimes don’t even realize it.
It’s interesting how we look at art today. We look at it through our smartphones and our cameras as we see in your film. It’s not enough for us to simply see art. We have to photograph it and, better yet, photograph ourselves with the art and share the images via social media.
Everybody is documenting their lives in a way that there’s never been a precedent for, and I think it was sort of a subtext to the film, at least for me. The project was also representing what it means to look at art now–it’s a simultaneous experience to documenting it.
Did you get any response from Banksy or anyone who works with him regarding the film?
About halfway through, we started a relationship with them, and even though they weren’t directly involved in making the movie we did get notes from them, stylistic notes, but mostly notes on accuracy.
We didn’t have anyone to check any of it with at first, and we were sort of framing this story for the first time ever. So we just tried to tell the story as accurately as possible, but before we really connected with them we weren’t able to put all the pieces together.
Was there an instance in which you were particularly thankful that you were able to have Banksy and his people as a resource?
Actually, a lot of it came down to the level of quality of the images because we only had low-res images that we took off the Internet. So they were able to replace everything that we had, all of the images in the film of the works, with the high-resolution images. The narration that we used from the website [created for the residency] was also kind of low quality and appropriated, so they were again able to get us like the clean audio for all that.
They must have appreciated having someone chronicle his New York City adventure.
I think they did. He put so much work into that month, and I’m sure they were prepping it for years, and then it was over. It was always meant to be this temporary experience, but I think on the other hand they probably appreciated having a record of it. And in a lot of ways that’s how we see the film–as a kind of archival project. It will exist as this sort of like definitive archival work that represents that month of Banksy in New York.
So did you hear what Banksy thought of the film?
Banksy apparently really liked the movie and even had a suggestion for the song for the opening title sequence, which we used. [The song is “Keep in the Dark” by Temples.]
The networks aren’t exactly clamoring to make films about art, so it must have been amazing to you that HBO contacted you and wanted to do this.
Yeah. I think it’s really cool. Sheila Nevins [president of HBO Documentary Films] really appreciates art docs, and she’s always made a point of producing them, and, you’re right–they’re not necessarily commonly produced by television networks. But she seems really interested in the intersection between art and New York, and I think this film sits squarely into her own personal interest. She’s a native New Yorker, and this is an event that I thought I’d approach as a portrait of New York City. It was representing Banksy’s time in New York but also in so many ways it visually represents every corner of the city. We were traveling to outer boroughs and areas where he’d gone and following in his footsteps, and in the end it came back as this like really beautiful portrait of New York City.
It was great to see that there are still people here in New York City interested enough in art to chase it down. Meanwhile, artists are being chased out of the city because the rents are so high nowadays.
That’s another thing. I think Banksy’s a populist artist. He’s able to inspire people to go out and get involved with public art projects, and they may not be interested necessarily in art or in the art world otherwise.
While Banksy was in New York City, supporters of Queens graffiti mecca 5Pointz were trying to save the building from being demolished to make way for condos, and the landlord later whitewashed the building in November, covering up most of the art. It is so jarring when you show footage of the whitewashed 5Pointz in the film. I actually got chills watching it.
I felt very connected, too, for a number of reasons. That 5Pointz shot still gives me chills.
It felt like a weirdly violent thing for the owner to do that when he wasn’t even planning to tear down the building for awhile.
Yeah. That’s an interesting way to put it. It did feel unnecessarily aggressive and almost more so, I think, than watching the building being torn down.
Back to Kurt and Julia, the dogwalkers, they got to screen the film in your office before its release. How did they react to seeing it?
They loved it. It was just a thrill for them because, again, they were shooting for themselves each day because they were genuinely obsessed with what Banksy was actually doing, and they didn’t want to miss out on anything, and they wanted to be able to document it. Obviously, they never had any idea that it would end up in a film, although, actually, that’s not true. The funny thing is, and this is not in the movie, I just remembered that there was a video that they made on the last day of [Banksy’s residency].
After seeing the inflatable Banksy sign, they’re driving away, and they’re kind of recapping the whole month for each other, and Kurt gets a little bit teary-eyed, and the Frank Sinatra song “New York, New York” is playing on the radio, and there’s this weird kind of clash of like past and future where they’re anticipating what’s going to happen.
He starts making references to the future film of Banksy’s Better Out Than In [again, not having any idea that Moukarbel will make a film], and he says, “You know, at the end of the movie, this is the music that’s going to be playing. This is what people are going to be hearing.” And he says, “If anybody out there wants to collaborate on the Better Out Than In movie…,” and he says it kind of as a joke.
He’s talking to sort of like this unknown public because it’s not like this video garnered a huge amount of views. As I was watching this, I was pulling together their videos and trying to figure out how to put together the end of the movie, and when that moment happened it was like the fourth wall came crashing down.