As part of our ever growing platform of content we wanted to add a new dimension, whereby we explore professionals within the industry from across the world that may not be able to join us at our festivals but still have a wonderful story to tell.
Steven you are certainly a man of many talents but it all had to start somewhere! Your career began at 17…but when did you first pick up a pencil and begin drawing?
Thank you. I created my first cartoon book at age 6 or 7. It was a take-off on the Peanuts characters. Age 6, 7 (laughs). You can imagine what it looks like: typing paper sandwiched between cardboard covers. Stapled. I still have it.
And did you know from that moment what your path might be?
Not consciously at first, but cartoons were a constant my whole childhood. I took solace in cartooning after a hard day at school dealing with all the bullies. And it’s where I would go simply for the joy of having a fanciful adventure. I remember at 17 a realization took over, the realization that the routine of school was ending and that I might actually have to do something with my life. That, combined with my dissatisfaction with what I saw as society’s poor values and mixed up priorities, compelled me to want to contribute to something uplifting. And with that I gravitated to my strengths and interests which was cartoons.
As a film festival we get to see so many different types of films with many being documentaries! You’re own project, ‘Old School New School,’ was very personal to you. How do you feel about it when you look back now, did you get the truth and honesty you were looking for?
I think we did. Like many people, I would talk about big ideas with friends over coffee. I always thought it would be great to record those private conversations which were so real and honest. One of the main challenges of the movie was to see if I could make a conversation-driven movie with no b-roll interesting. I wanted the discussion in the spotlight. It’s challenging enough to make a movie that keeps an audience engaged, now I’m throwing into the mix an intellectual discourse with no visual flash and glitter. It was tough.
What inspired you?
I was inspired by Louis Malle’s Place de la Republique and Jon Fauer’s courageous and beautifully photographed Cinematographer Style which is also an interview-only movie. We intentionally used a minimal crew at each location, sometimes just three of us. The DPs (Chris Cassidy, Phil Rosensteel, and Scott Uhlfelder) were challenged to use only available light. We used no production lights except on my in-studio hosted segments. No make up. No boom mike. And in most cases no tripods. We aimed to be as unobtrusive as possible in efforts to capture the most real and honest conversation. Of course we know that’s impossible. You know you’re being recorded, you know this is a movie, you know it will be public. You’ll never capture a subject completely unguarded. But still, we set the conditions as best we could so the subjects could be uninhibited, and I think we captured some essential truths.
Do you think you’d get the same response today?
I think so. Sure. Maybe even more. Is it too naïve to say that society is more conditioned to cameras out and recording? How many young people today are, in a sense, growing up on-camera? I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. But I’ll tell you one thing, to this day I still hear from people thanking me for Old School New School. And the most common response is: “This is just what I needed and wasn’t getting.” People want to talk about big ideas. Why are we here? Who am I? How can I tap into my full potential? And they’re just not getting it. And I think it’s because way too many of us live on the surface of life and never take the effort to search for understanding. That’s why I make movies. That’s why I tell stories, to search for understanding.
Talk to us about Steve & Bluey?
They’re doing great! They’ve been my life for my entire life. The first published production was their comic strip in 1990, but I’ve been writing Steve & Bluey stories since 1981.
How do you describe them?
Steve and Bluey are a modern day comedy team and they educate through entertainment, you know? Not educate in a formal sense, but through example… by celebrating the child within and using their life as cartoon entertainers to reflect on who we are and why people do what they do. It goes back to me at age 17, dissatisfied with society’s priorities and wondering why the class bully had to be so cruel. We have a strong connection to London, as you know. In the 1990s we lived there and were guided by producer Steve Melendez at Melendez Films, back then on Gresse Street. We spent 12 years searching for a commission for a fully animated TV series, and I am forever grateful to the Melendez family for their generosity and support serving as co-producer of the effort. There were a few close calls, but we never got the big commission; however, in the U.S., Phillip Guthrie at TCI Communications of Baltimore accepted the show in 1996 and we produced a series of animatics which ran as interstitials for three years on TCI TV. A really good introduction to Steve & Bluey is the book The Wonderful, Happy, Cartoony World of Steve & Bluey, because the book take us with such intimacy into their professional and private lives.
You promoted that book with an amazing World tour, didn’t you?
The 2014 re-release we did. The original was released in 2001, 2002. But I re-vamped the book — which is a collection of behind-the-scenes adventures about life in animated show business — and, yes, the tour took me across the U.S., Puerto Rico, England, Hungary, the Middle East, Asia, Southeast Asia. I was invited as a special guest speaker aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 and twice aboard an ultra luxury mega yacht called SeaDream for Transatlantic crossings. That was surreal! Like Cinderella at the ball. I spent years promoting it with lectures on the nature of creativity and with cartoon storytelling workshops. In fact I’m still promoting. I’m in discussion now with the City of Paducah for a residency as part of their UNESCO Creative Cities network connection.
Director, Producer, Actor, Editor, Writer, Cinematographer, Animator…you do a lot!! Above animation which role do you enjoy the most?
I don’t like it, this slash title world in which we live. But when you live the life of a working artist, being a Jack-of-all-trades can help… but I do feel I’m missing out on the rewards one gets from mastering one role. I try hard to simply be a good storyteller. If there’s one common denominator in all those titles it’s telling a story. Writer, I guess then would be the role I enjoy most. And producing. I love the team work, you know, the camaraderie, the coming together of many talents for a common goal. As aggravating as the sour apples in a group can be, collaborating with the good people and seeing an idea brought to life energizes me and brings so much pleasure. I’m still in love with it.
You’re a working artist in perhaps the hardest industry in the world! Would you change anything?
Ha! “Change anything.” About the world? About the industry? Or about being a working artist?
You know, I could be zen about this and say, “Everything is happening as it should.” I think the biggest lessons I’ve learned about being a working artist have to do with coming to terms with the words “compromise” and “control”, about the benefits of tenacity, and, as obvious as it sounds, of having something to say and using the arts to search for understanding. I don’t know if I’d phrase it as changing something so much as I see the responsibility we have as experienced professionals to share with others what we’ve learned. And the more I engage with people, all over the world, the more I see how crucial it is that people get off the surface of life. We are so conditioned to the conveniences of technology, and it’s numbing the human in us. Maybe that’s the thing I’d like to see changed, that people unplug from technology once in a while and go within to reflect. I’d like to see us build a stronger connection to instinct and to that little whisper inside which is how our characters speak to us. Too many people dismiss one another with cynicism and make no effort to find understanding about life, about human behavior. You know, the first day of a rehearsal or a workshop or any creative endeavour I lead… here’s what I tell the artists: You are in the safest place you’ll ever be to create, because by my way of thinking there are no good ideas or bad ideas only ideas that reflect who you are and the level you’re at. And there is no right or wrong, there’s only effective or ineffective. If your idea is effective, great. It worked. If not then we work on it, we examine the motivation and objective of the character, and what you want to say, and we experiment until we make something that’s ineffective, effective. And we do this by being open, in the moment, playful, spontaneous, curious … that’s the big one. Conditioning ourselves to be curious and inquisitive and to show interest in something other than self. I’ve listened to so many people talk, fixated on their own perspective — and I mean fixations that are narrow, limited, negative, bitter, unenlightened. And I want to ask them: have you ever engaged someone and just spent the time asking questions and listening? Just because you consider another point of view doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. It means you are open to something other than yourself. You’re asking what might be changed? How about we listen more than we speak, ask questions more than we make comments, and then combine the discoveries we make with our own point of view and let our work make the comment.
Wow! That was…
I know; I was appearing at Speakers’ Corner there for a moment.
No, no. We like passion! One last question, what film still remains timeless for you?
City Lights. Charlie Chaplin, 1931. Best last line of a movie ever, silent or sound.
What a wonderful insight into your journey and career to date. Thank you, Steven Fischer, for being our inaugural subject in ‘The Green Room’. It has been a pleasure.
It has pleasure for me, too. Thank you so much for the honour!