I encountered Connor Willumsen's work years before getting to know him personally, when I lived in Montréal over most of 2014. The things I've always valued about it are just as present in his newest book, Bradley of Him, as they were in anything prior. (In the interest of transparency, it does feature a pull-quote from me on the back). Those virtues are traits no reader should take for granted: a restlessly inquisitive air suffusing its construction both of meanings and of forms, a sense of conscientious consideration that guides instead of hampers its freely spent duration, and a persistent effort to capture thought and lived experience as truly as one can.
Positioning the actor/director/entertainment figure Bradley Cooper as its central figure, Bradley of Him explores a web of shared narratives--awards-season validation,vision quests, career arcs, and mentor-student dynamics among others--which celebrities, more visibly than most of us, struggle to move through. This same pervasive tangle--we'll call it culture--is just one of the book's many subjects, and does something wild to us all.
Since conducting this interview last October (in a single conversation, by phone) things have seemed to rhyme with much of what's discussed within it as well as the contents of the book. Connor spent much of last week at Sundance with an adaptation of his first Koyama book,Anti-gone, Bradley Cooper has announced his next directorial project; even Jokerstands a chance to sweep this week's Oscars. These ironies strike me not for any suggestion of prescience but because they remind me of Connor's keen observational sense. Frank, playful, and happily idiosyncratic--but too thoughtfully invested to be just withering or merely clever--it's a sensibility that's as great to experience in conversation as it is on the page.
What follows has been selectively edited--with Connor's input--for clarity and concision. As we spoke, he sketched some pages including the one in the image above while we both drank tea.
Lobby of the Mirage
George Elkind: Reading over the book, I thought a lot about the choice to set it in and around Vegas. Considering the book’s subject matter [celebrity, performance, awards-season striving], the temptation might have been to set it in L.A. What led you to Vegas?
Connor Willumsen: Well, the decision to set it in Las Vegas came before the decision to have the story deal with celebrities or Hollywood issues. I had sort of based the whole book off of a few drawings and a few scenarios in my head and basically started with an image of where the book actually started--which is in a particularly large Las Vegas hotel lobby, [that of] The Mirage.
Had you been down there before working on the book?
Yeah, I think--because I started this book in 2015, it was designed as a short story--I can’t remember the exact days, but I must have just been to Las Vegas for the first time at that point. I was visiting my aunt, who does live in Hollywood, and the subject of Las Vegas came up and she was quite alarmed to find out I had never been there. So she immediately drove me and my father to Las Vegas for one night I think--just so we could see it. And we stayed at the Mirage just to people-watch and see what it’s about, and at the time it was a very fresh and vivid experience. So I just had sort of an unconscious urge to set something in that location.
She did that on the spot?
Just about. It was pretty quick. You know, it’s close enough that we could just hop in the car. And we were kind of in “visiting mode,” so it’s easy enough to just kill the day--she was pretty excited to show it to me, I think.
[George, missing the prior mention of the year]: Ah--and how old were you?
Let’s see--if I had to guess, I would think about… 26 at the time. 27? I’m not sure.
[George laughs]: Okay, I was picturing like, as a little kid or something.
Oh no, this was fairly recently. And I think as an adult I was able to enjoy it without being possibly freaked out by it. I was hanging back and watching it unfold without any stress of it being, like, a new or weird place.
Sure. [pauses] I notice this motif of undulating landscapes as Bradley’s running or jogging, as well as in the casino-based scenes. When I looked at those I thought of the grant project you mentioned [for] studying perspective--specifically forms of perspective [historically employed] in China. And of that feeding into some of what’s in the book. Do you want to talk about that experience a little?
Sure. That’s accurate, that what you’re talking about informed what I was doing. What I got was--I’d sort of been researching perspective, just casually on my own, in books and things for a long time. And it was in--yeah, I got an artist residency in Beijing, to look at some hand scrolls that had an alternative use of perspective. I got a grant from the City of Calgary to do that--to fly there. And it sort of ended up being a bust, the trip itself, in terms of actually finding any information. But I had been sort of thinking about it [perspective] and looking at it, and I did eventually get to see some scrolls a few years later--and I think it served the book just after that. I was sort of deliberately trying to think of visual space and perspective in a different way than I had come up learning previously in comic books--which makes me think of maybe a shoebox perspective. Where the panel is like this physical shoebox, with appropriate linear-point perspective and that sort of thing. Whereas this time I was deliberately trying to open it up a bit and think of perspective and space differently in terms of how it rests on the comic-book page. Instead of, for example: superficially making it look like, um, a Chinese scroll or another sort of alternative abstraction of perspective.
Yeah, it seems like it’s kind of… I’m a little hesitant to call it an interior approach but it does seem kind of subjective and really fluid. I don’t exactly feel like you’re, um, allied with Bradley in this book even though your attention’s mostly on him.
Sorry, did you say--you don’t feel what with Bradley?
Sorry, I mean to say--I don’t feel like you, potentially, or the reader--is necessarily allied, or encouraged to identify with Bradley or something, even though he’s the focus of attention in a particular way.
Yeah, I think it has like...I think I’m trying to, um, think of the space he’s in differently, and open that up or flatten and bend it a bit to wrap around the character more. to almost give it a “Where’s Waldo?” vibe rather than an intimate association with a character. You’re sort of observing this space roll out around them as opposed to being, like, an experiential moment to share with him or something like that.
Yeah, and you have these people who are kind of flummoxed bumping into him, which sort of calls into question ideas about audience, or what a viewership means--it’s teased out through these less glamorous interactions [in which the character is not framed in terms of celebrity]... It’s hard to imagine what being more emotionally intimate with him in a blunt way would look like. Because to me this book’s so much about questioning the narratives he has of his life, or received narratives about fame--or celebrity--that I think you would fall into them by doing so. I guess that’s not a question! [both laugh]
I guess another way to put it is that your instinct for avoiding that [type of engagement] feels right--because the alternative might make you kind of a sucker.
Yeah, I was gonna say--I think it suits the sort of disguise nature of the wardrobe, which is I believe the first thing I came up with. That activewear was sort of this disguise into anonymity or something like that. So there’s already kind of visually an arm’s-length [distance] from what you get to know about the character.
Documented, Televised, Discussed
There’s this kind of athletic-style contest for the Best Actor competition in general, in real life [and it’s framed as Olympian by characters in the book]. How male-specific do you think of that sort of contest [or that framing] as being?
Yeah, I thought about that--because my interest in using the framework of the Oscars themselves stems from my… trying to, like, comprehend how visible the Oscars are compared to how important what they’re awarding is? Like, to me, they might be the most visible award on the planet (although I’m not really sure about that)...in terms of it being documented, it being televised, it being discussed. Even though it doesn’t happen in all parts of the world, I feel like overall there’s more publicity about the Oscars and it sort of becomes de facto the most important award on Earth. Just in terms of the amount of energy we commit to it, or the amount of attention we commit to it. And within that framework I try to imagine what specific awards get the most attention. And… I think it’s the Actor and Actress awards that tend to get the most attention, because of how they tie into, like, the career of the celebrity in question. And how we feel about celebrities and what a career path or an accomplishment means.
And I think there are differences between the Best Actor and Best Actress awards. One: they don’t compete with each other. And the framing is always very specific, like: when the Best Actress walks the red carpet, a lot of it is about what they’re wearing and how they’re sort of enjoying the evening itself. And I’ve found in watching Oscar acceptance speeches that the awarding of the Best Actor award takes on this kind of, like, gravitas for no particular reason. Whereas the Best Actress award is framed as being more emotional, maybe. But the Best Actor [of a given year] often really becomes this austere representative for what masculinity is in a movie or something like that.
Yeah, I don’t think the women who win are allowed to display their egos in quite the same way. Even though some of them are probably sort of egotistical, they’re expected to be more “gracious” or “emotional.” To me the typical cliches for a male Best Actor award are either an intense impersonation or some kind of physical feat--or both. Like: weight loss or gain or some sort of horrible shooting conditions or something. So I think the kind of athletic [comparison]--the speech [in the book] with a comparison to the Olympics--I think that is often the frame. So it seems accurate.
Yeah, there are all these classifications for winning that can [help] get you an Oscar. And people know what they are. Like, the more hard of a life you depict, the more likely it is that you’re gonna win. Big, dramatic explosions of emotion in a movie… there are ways to guess who could or could not be a winner in those categories.
Yeah. I think it’s difficult to imagine in any other medium just having one award that overshadows a career trajectory in quite the same way. I wouldn’t think of a fiction writer as writing for a prize, or towards one--ever. And I certainly wouldn’t think of that in comics.
Yeah. That’s interesting. I’ve never actually thought of that. Because it is actually so normal in movies--to watch an actor doing that right before your eyes, in a movie, and to not think that [it] is… completely fucked-up, and taking you out of the movie. Whereas if I was reading a comic book and I thought a cartoonist was, like, angling for an Eisner--I would probably be more sensitive to that and more repulsed by that. Whereas in movies it’s standard.
Yeah, it’s super-recognizable... Can you talk about working on this book and then having these real-life things sort of come up [that interfaced with the fictionalized, but reality-rooted world of Bradley]? Like, you had a previous version of a page that had a reference to a then-nonexistent Joker movie. And then you had the whole Star Is Born thing happen in the middle of making the book.
Yeah, it’s hard to know what to say about it besides [acknowledging] the anxiety it produced. But, yeah, at one point one of the fake movies that was being nominated was, like, an adaptation of The Killing Joke? It was called The Killing Joke? But I had to change it because of the movie that’s out right now [Todd Phillips’ Joker]. Yeah, in general I felt a lot of anxiety because I felt like a lot of the emotional weight you feel in this book is due to the concept--or the question--of winning or not winning an award. And since it’s referencing real people, when the movie A Star is Born was announced, I got really nervous because to me it seemed like such a machine that was so specifically designed to conjure an award that I felt I was racing against it in some ways. And it didn’t occur to me when I started, obviously, but it became evident that how awards for that particular movie would play out would actually affect interpretation of what I had made. And I had to finish this book right around the same time that those awards were announced, so I weirdly became extremely invested in that whole awards circuit for that movie and that year in general. But I guess that’s just a consequence of using pop culture as sort of a dramatic setting.
Right. So when you say “invested,” do you mean you were concerned about the [outcome of the] race itself or more the fact of it--that you were concerned about trying to keep it out of your field of vision? I don’t know if that [the latter option] was possible.
Yeah, I guess I was concerned about it. I would sort of try not to think about it, but in order to make the book as good as I could I felt obligated to take that possibility seriously, and sort of plan for it--which I wasn’t really able to do since the deadline and the awards were almost simultaneous.
But, you know, it just affected how… you know, it just affected my personal life in an interesting way. I had sort of shown this book to a lot of friends or described it, being very uncertain with it. And on Oscar night or even the Golden Globes night, I got several text messages either wishing me luck beforehand or congratulating me afterwards when no awards were won, that sort of thing. So it became like this sort of other, personal situation whether or not that was gonna happen--because people close to me understood how much I had invested into this book and therefore what kind of stress or energy I was feeling in relation to those awards. Even though I did do everything I could to avoid it, I didn’t… for example, I didn’t find myself able to watch the movie A Star is Born until well after I’d finished this book.
Were there any surprises there for you, in the actual movie?
Eh, not really. I had seen the old one and it just confirmed what I thought I knew, or what I had felt--which is that this movie and this story, which has been told before, is sort of… designed to attract awards attention in a lot of ways, you know?
Right. I mean, one of the things the Oscars are really prone to is digging into works that mythologize movies or filmmaking--or celebrity, basically.
Right, it’s sort of like--I’m actually surprised it didn’t win as many awards as it didn’t, even though I didn’t think it was the greatest movie at all. But it featured a sort of transformation, which is a very--something the Oscars favor very heavily. But that also overlapped with this musical quality, which seems to be another thing that pulls together attention for an award. It was really a perfect storm of award buzz.
I was joking with a friend about how the typeface was in the kind of “Oscar Gold.”
Yeah, that’s, uh… that’s a pretty blunt move.
It’s some… priming, I guess is the word?
Yeah. And it’s kind of odd. Because I don’t know, if someone, like, rates this book, you can’t predict how much a reader will or won’t give a shit about something like that? When I started in like 2015, I was trying to think of a model, per the archetype of someone who was trying to advance and push their career into this more legitimate zone. And the Oscar awards system provides the most easy-to-recognize framework for that. And I spent a long time sort of selecting what actors I would or wouldn’t represent [within the book], and Bradley Cooper seemed to be in this sort of… tense zone of ascension, crossing over between lowbrow and highbrow. And that movie coming out--A Star is Born in the last year--just ratcheted up the tension of that sort of limbo, of the career ascension. And I think fortunately [it] makes that message a bit more visible in the book.
Yeah... He [Bradley Cooper] kind of took this trend I’ve noticed, where a lot of actors are producing their own work as a way to steer their careers. And he quickly made a big grab in this way that took on… the means of production, if you will [Note: in retrospect, I feel I’m misusing the term here -George] in a way that seemed so highly deliberate, which is what I’d think was kind of anxiety-provoking and strange to watch in the lead-up to [the Oscars and the film’s release]... how calculated it seemed.
Yeah. And then you have awards for not just acting, but then you have, like, possible awards lined up for directing, or writing, or music, or all these other things. It creates a very stacked situation.
My kind of read on it was that he was trying to, like, equate himself with David Foster Wallace or something at the end of it--in terms of the suicide method… it seemed like this creation of a kind of equivalency and scanned as a form of self-mythologizing, in a kind of egregious way.
Yeah, I couldn’t help but notice he’d managed to retain a perfectly chiseled six-pack despite portraying an alcoholic at the end of their rope, both physically and mentally.
Hard to grasp! And in rehab? Towards the end of the movie.
I’m glad Leo DiCaprio’s in the book because he’s the person I always think of in terms of the trajectory we’re talking about--in terms of spending years and years angling for these things, [with] these different kinds of physical contexts or historical impersonations.
Right. He always seemed to have… it seemed like everyone decided he already deserved [an Oscar] but it was just a matter of time before he was given it. In a sense, [he had] the more kind of “elite” Hollywood profile.
Yeah, I think he makes, or magnifies the case. I try to think what makes audiences susceptible to or invested in these narratives. I think [of how] he’s sort of implied as an underdog, or this situation where we feel like we’re on first-name terms with different actors.
Which… I’m susceptible to as well, but maybe think about it abstractly a bit more. Whether it’s a matter of marketing, or some deeper resonance that’s inherent to these narratives that’s either suggested or observed.
Yeah. I think in the book I did want to feel like there’s this sort of--in the reading of it, there is sort of an uncomfortable familiarity with people you don’t know--in a way that actually makes you question what you’re reading a little bit.
You mean with the actors specifically or all the characters?
I think the combination of both. Let’s see if I can explain a little better; I want it to seem like you’re looking at an image of your own concept of who a famous person is, if that makes any sense. Rather than actually portraying, like, real people in real life who are, like, well-researched and… treating it that way.
Okay. So you’re more eyeing their persona, or your version of their persona--instead of their actual physical body or self?
Yeah. Right. Because I think I was skeptical of my own relationship with what I think I know about a celebrity and tried to imbue that into the book itself so that was felt in the reading of it--so there was this creeping uncertainty.
I think the whole notion of [Bradley’s] identity is really questioned throughout, where it’s made to be about other signifiers or other people’s vision of him, or--it’s rendered ambiguous in a lot of ways. There’s this kind of received narrative, not just of the Oscar race but of this kind of vision quest, both of which I think are kind of subverted. If he’s supposed to find himself or something--if we’re going with the typical story--then I feel like something else happens.
I think this sort of identity-questioning came about due to the nature of doing it in this medium, actually. Because at one point, where I was deciding whether I was going to portray real-life famous people or reference them or do whatever--there’s a scene with this sort of Leonardo DiCaprio character. And I drew him and I sort of tried to make him look like him--but it occurred to me that in drawing a cartoon, you can’t really make a verifiable image of a person. And you can’t really, like… for instance, if this was a movie and Leonardo DiCaprio were to show up in a scene you’d know it was him. You’d be able to recognize him and verify with your vision. But with a drawing of a person, you can’t quite verify what is happening--it kind of automatically seems very unreliable. So then the only way you could identify someone in that way is to have a sort of correct, omnipotent narrator that you trust that is very specifically saying that. And my feeling is that short of that, everything sort of became naturally unreliable-feeling, because there’s no way to verify who’s who or what’s going on. Because the medium makes it feel like a step removed, somehow, from the kind of authenticity that you might have in another medium.
I think it links really naturally with the sort of shifting perspective we talked about--the narrative’s sort of doing the same thing, where it’s not permitting a stable point of view. But we’re kind of forced to cobble together a sense of a person from a series of impressions, often other people’s impressions. Since we’re reading, they’re also ours.
And I think actors, when they’re working, [especially towards] this sort of awards gambit thing, where they are pursuing approval--or a goal that’s to some degree outside their control, that they can sort of gesture towards--I think they end up kind of… there seems to be a kind of self-estrangement that takes place here because of that dynamic--which is sort of underscored by those elements of the story and the way it’s rendered.
Yeah, to me there does seem to be something shared about the way these types of awards are set up. I think part of the reason they’re so popular is that somehow the people at home watching it can relate to the winning of the award because of the familiarity they have with that person, or the types of characters they portray. And then it becomes this sort of shared feeling of accomplishment on some level…
Or of being thwarted, right? When the person they were cheering for loses. And they relate to the ways they feel thwarted. It’s like: “I didn’t get the job, I obviously deserved it.”
Right. Right. Yeah, and these famous people seem to sort of--for better or for worse--have to carry a lot of other people’s fantasies along with them, whether knowingly or not.
So you kind of used the same general method with this book--with tracing paper and graphite, similar media--as with your previous book. Can you talk about developing that over the course of these works?
Sure. Well, this one--I think it’s important to point out, I actually started Bradley of Him before I made Anti-Gone. When I first started it out, it was originally supposed to be a 12-page story for an anthology. And then I just kept being late on it and delayed, and then I had to make a book, so I got delayed by having to make a book--which is Anti-Gone. So Anti-Gone is sort of based on what I had been coming up with for this book. And I think when I started Anti-Gone I had planned that it would look sort of similar to this. I had done some tests with layering graphite, using graphite on the back of a piece of vellum, using it on the front, overlaying--all this kind of stuff. And I found when I started doing that with Anti-Gone, I had a bunch of tests and it looks very similar to this. And it was just sort of a mess and I couldn’t figure out a consistent method to actually continue the making of that book. And so, with Anti-Gone, because I was under a very short time constraint, I decided to use ink and marker because I knew I could completely control those things and nothing unexpected would happen.
And once I finished that, I felt I had enough knowledge and confidence in how a translucent medium to work with would work that I then felt confident I could do this sort of graphite thing to finish off this book. But they’re a bit different in one sense. For example, Anti-Gone is all on one piece of paper with drawing on the front and back of it, a translucent piece--sometimes [with] a piece of black card mounted behind it for scenes at night. Whereas the Bradley pages are… about three different layers. There’s linework, there’s sort of tones, and then there’s lettering and sometimes overlapping image to create a fourth layer. And that’s so I can really control everything and push the values and stuff like that. So the process was a bit more complicated and heavy on the digital end in the end, in terms of making sure the values were right. I just wanted a bit more control of this one, because the drawings--the way they sort of collaged and overlapped tended to be more complicated. So I needed to be able to ensure clarity and control values at any given point.
Yeah, I remember seeing the originals and recall that “collaged” sense.
When you saw it, were they kind of tight--but sketched out, and sort of smudgy--on photocopy? Or were they like--
[George, interrupting]: Well, I saw the photocopies later. I think I saw them before Anti-Gone, before that book was even announced. And I remembered… it was on these separate pieces you had to overlay for me to see the image. I don’t think there was much lettering at that point, maybe for a couple pages--I think there were like six or eight pages [in total] then.
And then, probably… two years later or something, you had Xeroxes and we went to Depanneur le Pick Up [a Montreal cafe and a standby for both of us] and we read through everything you had until that point.Then I think it was probably forty or sixty pages.
So it was pretty far along. There wasn’t the sequence that’s probably the biggest leap in the book--to Murray, the kid. That wasn’t in it. I think it might have stopped after the cooking in the desert.
Yeah, so--that thing, at that phase--I was just burning through as fast as I could on, like, really light pieces of tracing paper that I find are still quite durable, in terms of erasing and drawing. And then I don’t think I had quite figured out how I was gonna make a final page based on that yet. But I had the impression I quite liked how the pencils were looking and wanted to maintain that somehow.
Yeah. Can you talk about the lettering for the book? You control direction and flow of pages in a lot of distinct ways--can you elaborate process for sorting that as you drew? I know you had a lot of moving pieces throughout the process [of constructing the book].
Yeah. Well I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how--maybe it’s obvious if you look at my books--but I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how much you can push a drawing or relationship between word and text before something literally becomes unreadable. And I’ve found it to be generally pretty flexible and intuitive from what I experience. I’ve done a few comics in the past where I allowed drawings to actually overlap and for text to actually overlap with the drawing as well, and found those were much more simplistic situations. Like bigger text and sort of like… just at a glance you can tell it had this looser framework which would prepare the reader. In doing that, I sort of sensed I could get away with a lot in terms of flow and that kind of thing. And also, just before I started making this book, I had done some tests where I would take, like, a page from an artist I like. Like I took a page from an Alack Sinner book that José Muñoz had drawn...
I remember those.
...And I would redraw a page and remove all of the [panel] borders but keep all the speech balloons and the figures, and just sort of overlap or collage them. And it became, like, a mess--but very pleasantly so. And I noticed that sort of invisible grid that used to actually be there did sort of create a framework of readability, where there was this natural flow to it, that--certainly for anyone who’s been reading comics for a while, [it’s something] that they could latch onto and catch. I’m not as confident how a new comic reader would come to that, but I think people in general are a lot more visually literate than we give ourselves credit for. So I feel like it’s fairly intuitive how that stuff works, once you set up the internal system.
Yeah. You’ve talked a lot [in prior correspondence] about your dad and you connecting a lot over movies, and then he’s in the acknowledgements for this book--though not explicitly in that context. Did you talk to him much about the book as you were making it? Do you want to speak to that at all?
Yeah--I’m willing to. I didn’t share the book with him a lot directly in terms of reading or anything like that. I think I had sort of described the situation of my making it and how that related to something like the movie A Star is Born coming out--I think me and him watched the Golden Globes together, actually. Which was a bit stressful, but fun. But just, these whole concepts of what we think about movies and celebrities, I get a lot from conversations with him. Like, we talk a lot about movies and people and celebrities and how they’re all related or not. These more subtle details, of what we think someone is or isn’t trying to do with their career. Or the ulterior motives of what someone’s performance in a movie actually is, in terms of their real life. It’s just something we chat about constantly, and like--it’s just this big well of knowledge that I developed by hanging out with him and talking to him.
And he was also sort of present for our bizarre excursion to Las Vegas--my first bizarre excursion to Las Vegas, where we just sort of strolled around and observed people. And like, you know--we were able to share in all the humor and bizarre interest that that held.
Yeah, that makes sense. Well, I’m trying to think [shifting subjects] …
I did see Joker [following up on Connor’s suggestion], so I suppose that might be worth getting into a little bit.
[Connor laughing]: Okay, why not!
The Universe of Batman
Yeah, so you saw it, and you were talking about… I feel like all there is, most of the meat is in the performance.
Yeah, I’d agree with that.
I was kind of impressed with how sort of shrewdly, and how kind of mercenary it was about signaling connections with contemporary politics but not actually having any sense of stakes to them. In this way that was perfectly legible, kind of subjectively legible to let any viewer congratulate themselves for their views.
I remember there was a scene where he’s on the bed or something. And the camera’s sort of panning over from the bed and there’s a newspaper on the floor? And a headline says, uh… “Kill the rich, question-mark?”
Yeah, and they have this whole Thomas Wayne thing, where he’s this kind of rich TV billionaire and there are literally protest signs that say “Resist?”
Yeah, it’s funny because it’s not, like, a remarkable premise or a remarkable way to display that premise--but I think what feels sort of naughty about it is that it’s, like, the universe of Batman, a corporate property, you know? Like, oh my god, Batman’s dad is, like, a fuckhead, you know? That feels so revolutionary to someone deeply invested in that intellectual property.
Yeah, to question Batman’s virtue or his family’s virtue.
His, like, inherited virtue--because in all the other movies they sort of bend over backwards to show [the Waynes] like, donating money, or… if they have, like, military-grade weapons, they’ve somehow acquired them very reluctantly. Like, it’s almost an accident they’ve developed, like, tanks and that kind of thing.
Yeah, I mean… I was thinking about the movie, about Joker a little bit, when you were talking about Bradley’s--an ascent for actors, where they move up and become considered “serious,” which is usually the goal. I don’t think this is a dissent, but I don’t know how to… it seemed like a strange line for Joaquin Phoenix to cross. To kind of do a movie like this, at this point.
Well, I--I think these sort of performances, like--there’s something weird about the Joker where it actually is an appropriate vessel to cross over into highbrow, somehow? As exemplified by, like, Heath Ledger, and the mystique of him winning the award for his performance of the Joker. But it shows that, like, I think, when--when people are winning these awards for movies, it’s often for really intense, campy, dramatic stuff. Like people laughing and crying and making incredible pained faces, with tight close-ups in the camera. Which is all stuff that also happens in a movie about a murdering clown. And [then comes] a situation like this for him, [in] which I think Joaquin Phoenix kind of reveals that industry hypocrisy, maybe. Him doing this is absolutely having your cake and eating it too, I guess.
There’s just this other kind of intersecting horse-race, and instead of running parallel it’s now a true overlap.
Yeah, right. Exactly. And this movie sort of conveniently reveals that in a way that maybe wasn’t as clear before. Like how these movies are all really doing similar things.
Yeah, I found it hard to grasp, but a friend was telling me that he had a friend he was annoyed with who said they only saw “arthouse movies,” which is a very confusing label at this point in time. Like, I don’t know how that could be construed as a badge of integrity now. When it’s so its own market, and kind of… like how Sundance isn’t really independent, typically. I mean, it’s just sort of an arbitrary line, and a very blurry one.
Yeah, it suits whatever you give it to in a moment.
I thought it a strange claim for someone to make.
Yeah, I’m sure there’s people watching this movie and deciding that it’s an arthouse movie. And I’m sure they’ve, like, thrown that word around in meetings on the corporate end as well.
Oh yeah. I think it’s kind of a first step in sort of a gentrified superhero movie ecosystem, or… I told a friend I don’t think it’s really a movie that’s targeting… it’s not seeking to be smart, but it’s seeking to make people feel like it’s a smarter version of what it is.
Yeah and it’s sort of a huge company packaging the tone of what people think of as independent, revolutionary cinema or something like that. It’s more about the packaged feeling of it that seems to be more important… than anything it’s actually revealing in its actual narrative ecosystem.
Right. Yeah, it… you just have these sort of signifiers, like a specific kind of light or something. Or--a sort of kooky performance. In a specific way. And I do think Joaquin’s good in it [technically, anyway], but these cues make people infer that there’s a lot going on--suddenly.
Yeah. But this movie also confirmed to me the level of baggage that is brought into seeing a pop-cultural movie. It’s actually impossible for me to think about this movie as if I haven’t heard any number of bizarre opinions about it, even before it ever came out. It’s impossible for me to even view it in its own right beyond those things. Because mostly what the story tells me is what it reveals about those conversations--about characters in the movie and that kind of thing.
Kind of jumping back--do you think the Oscars are becoming less of a focus for the public at large? My sense is that people are losing interest in them--generally people I know don’t watch Best Picture winners or keep up with the races as much.
Yeah, I’d agree with that. Although it’s hard to say, because I don’t want to confuse my own lack of an interest, or the lack of interest of people I socialize with, with a broad global trend or something like that. But I sort of sense that and I think it is a feeling people have. I mean, there’s a lot of obvious reasons for that. And I think it’s sort of good that they’re not treated the same way. But there is this sort of malaise about movies and the decay of authenticity. And now the trendy thing is these statements, or like articles, about the last real Hollywood superstars, that sort of thing. Like, there’s no more Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt’s like the last aging big celeb, that kind of thing.
Right. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood felt like it was manipulating that very strongly, that sense.
Exactly. Except there’s this kind of sense of decay, and I think that also gives his [the character of Bradley in Connor’s book’s] sort of pursuit to achieve an Oscar a more stressful sense of urgency, because it feels more like it’s time-based to some extent, to get in under the wire in terms of it being relevant on any level.
Yeah.. it’s kind of interesting how one of the primary functions now seems to be that Best Actors get Bond villain roles or something?
I get awards screeners this year, with all the marketing stuff--a lot of them are kind of funny.
Are the screeners, like, in a certain mode? Do they come packaged with… for your consideration, a little velvet case? Or are they just discs in a ratty little sleeve?
I just got the first one which was kind of great--because it was The Secret Life of Pets 2?
It lists Best Picture, Best Production Design… a lot of real reaches!
Yeah, that’s… I love this, like, For Your Consideration thing. The aunt who took me to L.A., she works in film and she gets tons of screeners all the time. Or her and her husband get tons of screeners, they both work in film. But when visiting, I have memories of these very, very bizarre, elaborate packages meant to, like, sell the movie as just, like, a special, momentous event. [Imitating studio reps] “Oh, like, if you could be so kind as to consider this movie for Oscar consideration.”
I think I read recently--I might not have this correct--but Robert Downey, Jr. asked Disney or Marvel, or whatever, to not campaign for him to get an Oscar [for Avengers: Endgame] and the reason was like--I didn’t read an article about it or anything. But one can only guess that the reason is sort of, out of the embarrassment of that process. Of trying to do that, maybe?
And his awareness of what that looks like. But I don’t really know.
It’s funny to think about. I’m sure it’s a lot of work. I remember hearing Rami Malek [following Bohemian Rhapsody’s 2018 release] on Fresh Air, and it really kind of repulsed me. Which maybe isn’t fair--I guess who can blame him? But he just sounded so practiced, and he had all of his talking points down in this kind of lead-up for the campaign. He sounded so impeccable and unblemished in terms of the anecdotes he was telling. It was too smooth and felt very suspect.
Someone once gave me a hint that if I ever want to see what a celebrity’s really like, a good thing to check out is if they ever do an interview on Howard Stern. Because it’s such a long interview that they tire out of the usual chit-chat they do in other interviews, that has this sort of promotional edge to it. They just have to fill the time, and fill it with whatever their natural inclinations are, I guess.
That’s a pretty good tip. Did they have any key takeaways?
Uh, yeah--they did, but I don’t want to… but they mentioned the Jake Gyllenhaal interview.
Okay. We’ll talk about it off the record! I feel like we’ve talked about Bradley himself surprisingly little. Maybe because we’ve discussed him extensively in person.
I don’t know. How extensively have you traced his career for this book? I think he’s been around a long time, but I became aware of him around The Hangover.
Yeah, I think I probably became aware of him at the same time. I think when I was searching for what celebrity would make sense in this position, I did really not-involved research on a number of actors. And watched a lot of interviews and saw how they composed themselves, or looked for sort of interesting… trivia about them? Or, like, strange little details? And I think the one that made him suitable for this sort of relationship, or this character arc, was a clip of him as a student asking Robert de Niro a question? And that to me created an image of the career trajectory somehow, like the ascension or the crusade of an acting career.
That “what inspires you?” part, is that what that was? That’s what’s in the book, right?
Nah, you know, I can’t remember what he… I think that may have been my invention. No, that specific section was not in reference to that real-life conversation. I think he asked him about a particular scene in a particular movie, like how he did it or something. But yeah, he just--I don’t know, there’s something about him--he represented the ascension… normally he played like the hot jerk ex-boyfriend in a comedy, like a stoner comedy. And also was kind of leaning into these frantic David O. Russell roles, and that sort of thing that can, like… where you get your first taste of award buzz or something like that. And then [there was] the attempt at ascension after that.
Yeah, his [David O. Russell’s] movies are sort of loosely comedic but have moments that are very actorly, you know? In the received kind of sense, where you get to do kind of gestural things in a performance.
Yeah, I think the word that comes to my mind is--there’s an assumption of, like, intensity, somehow.
Yeah, I think that’s fair. [pauses, pivots from a fruitful topic] Can you talk a bit about how you use variations in scale in the book, or rules you may have had that structured pages--or panels.
Do you mean the physical scale of, uh…
Mainly of figures, there’s a motif in which they appear repeatedly.
Yeah, I think I know what you’re talking about. It’s hard to explain, beyond me trying to use what I had thought I had figured out about perspective, and trying to use it intuitively. Where it’s like, traditional comics-making… I think the reason I gravitated towards this type of image-making is that, pretty loosely, I felt really… like the act of making a comic book didn’t quite match how I thought of a narrative unfolding when I’m drawing it, somehow? I think the way I think, if I’m closing my eyes and thinking of a story or whatever--the way things scale in importance--they move in and out and wash over each other and it feels very intuitive. Whereas, if I’m breaking it down into those diorama-boxes? I’m having to edit out or leave out so much of where I intuitively go towards, then… me doing it this way is more of an attempt to be reflective of the way I’m actually thinking, or asking myself what happens next. And sometimes it feels like a bigger image or something will take more prominence--because, you know, comics do sometimes do this repetition thing where you have, like, a character sitting still in the same position in multiple panels to show the progression of time. If there’s a repeated image that happens over and over, maybe something changes very subtly. What comes to mind when I think of this is Chris Ware, who I think does it well. But it’s used often, and very few people do it well--where there’s this sort of static repeated image. And I like the way that feels in terms of there being a repetition of the moment but I don’t like the way it looks in a comic book generally. So I think this is an attempt to figure out how to crack the code of something being repetitive but still having it be dynamic, with things changing from moment to moment.
Yeah, kind of controlling time. It’s a bit like what you were talking about with the [layered pages and] gray tones of the book--having a bit more control.
Yeah. But also, without it feeling as controlled, hopefully, with the lack of delineation between one image or another and the way they overlap. I didn’t want it to feel like “this moment is separate from that moment.” Like you’re looking at an Eadward Muybridge sequence or something like that, I wanted them to fold in and out of each other as much as possible in terms of readability.
Sure. That makes sense. Did you have any ground rules, or sort of dogmas going into the book? As far as design, or structure? Aside from the, using graphite the way you did?
Yeah… yeah, it’s not, like, a dogma so much as I locked into sort of a program or something that I had? Basically, if I have a comic book that’s sort of longer, I’ll use the first twelve pages to figure out what I’m doing, and the setting I choose, and the tone will help with that. That’s the case here. And by the end of that [in this case], I figured that the only way I could make it was that I had to start in the top-left of the page without necessarily knowing what’s coming in the rest of the page. And that the page had to end on a sort of… on somewhat of a conclusive moment even if it’s not literally conclusive of what’s happening. There has to be some closed section to the page itself. So--if you look at the pages I think what you’ll find is that in the top-left, the image starts with this big, larger open image of something I wanted to draw. And then the way you could think of it is that I’m sort of dissecting the page into pieces as I go. And then as I run out of space in the bottom-right corner, I’m making more and more dissections, knowing that I’m making more and more dissections--knowing that I’m reaching this conclusive end to the page. So you’ll find that there’s this shrinking of panels as it goes from the top-left to the bottom-right, as I’m sort of cutting up the page to get the last bits of juice out of it.
So it’s not super-dogmatic, but I wouldn’t, like, sketch a layout beforehand--because whatever energy that design holds would be totally lost, if I did a layout to try to get the composition right and everything. Because it’s sort of like a mass, but a sort of controlled, structured one that you can navigate through.
Yeah, I do see what you mean. As far as that movement.
Yeah, I think it gives it sort of a gravity, too, where the top part of the page has this more easy-breezy slower flow. And then as it gets more condensed, it’s almost like it sucks you in more, you know? Or pulls you down the page a bit more. It has this kind of literal gravity, or weight to it.
Yeah, I think it really invites you in with the opening and by the time it gets smaller you’re invested in the progression.
Yeah. And that’s not super-deliberate, it’s just by nature of what feels pleasurable in terms of drawing. It’s like, when you start a page it feels very pleasurable and open, and when you finish it, you’re basically looking for an escape route and sort of filled with anxiety about how you’re gonna tie it up.
Did you have many, um… any kind of deliberate points of reference visually, for this book? Other than the scroll work you were talking about?
Um, let me think.
It doesn’t remind me of much--which I think is a good thing.
Yeah.. In a way, it reminds me of the José Muñoz--because me tracing that… if you want to post an image of that in the interview, I can send you that because it might help to explain.
Yeah, I think it would help.
[images included above]
Okay. But yeah, something about his pages, even though they’re not, like--the panels aren’t collaged over each other in this way [as in Bradley of Him], but if you look at the way the characters overlap with each other and change scale--that’s what he uses to imply space in a room, or perspective. And he doesn’t use this shoebox/diorama thing, it’s sort of this flat cut-outs changing scale that really give this… still maintains this really visceral, three-dimensional feeling to it, that’s more like what it feels like, what it’s like to walk around being bombarded with faces and places and street signs, and all the stuff merging together in your field of vision and memory and all that. If you were to hold up his page--[and] like, a page from this, I’m not sure they would look very similar but I think there are some similarities to notice. Like how scale changes and how some things flatten and some don’t.
Yeah, I do really think this book gets at the act of perceiving and moving around as scale does change and [implying with that how] things come into your attention or leave it. Without feeling first-person either, which I think is really neat [and rare], which is that it’s sort of… it’s looking at a character where ego, in the sense of both identity and pride is such a big part of who he is, but I don’t think it’s contained by that character. If that makes sense.
How concerned were you about portraying real people in the book? Did that weigh on you much?
Well, I was being interviewed about this book. And the person who was [interviewing me] was particularly interested in the Bradley Cooper stuff. But just the way we were talking about it, I was able to fit in--or address how--even though we’re dealing, or I’m dealing with, like… real people, or people that are known in a sense, that I had to acknowledge my ignorance about… like I just didn’t feel comfortable doing a full-on send-up of a famous person, even though it’s sort of public… like a common public thing to deride often.
Like, going this deep into--the amount of time it takes to make a book, and going this deep, and feeling this intimate with what I’m doing--it didn’t feel appropriate somehow, to be so glib about it, even though there’s a lot of visceral appeal at the concept of doing it. Like, there’s a lot of seductive aspects about dealing with this material in terms of it possibly being entertaining or juicy, or something like that.
Right, there’s a lot to be glib about.
Right. But it was sort of important for me to treat it like… like not reflect on the real, actual personal lives of the real people but the sort of shared fantasy/vessel we create about them. And what that feels like and what that means. Like somehow, it seemed a more--to hone in on the subject matter--more a topic I could actually wrap my head around and understand. Rather than say what it’s like to actually be a celebrity, or an artist whose work is extremely visible at all times and where your whole career is being scrutinized by thousands of people. You know, this book is more--it feels more like our end of it as spectators, if that makes sense.
Yeah, well I think if you’re that famous at a certain level then your whole identity becomes this kind of shared construction that you make with your audience. And you can help they’ll build that identity [with you] in the ways you like, but there’s sort of a quality of gambling on that.
And I think that sort of applies to identity generally, in that it’s always really rooted in how we’re received or seen by others. Part of what makes it a strong subject is that it’s sort of heightened for people in this kind of [visible, celebrity] position. And that they’re attuned to it as [something that] creates a path for them in terms of success or failure. Even if… most of us just get to focus on well-being more, or should.
I don’t think the book feels… scornful or anything like that.
Yeah. There are times where it was like, tempting to be on some level. But it’s weird, I found myself sort of being sympathetic to that, to being stuck in that career position in ways that surprised me or something like that. Like, I had to ask myself how I would portray any other job versus this one and why would I create a difference of my own subjective opinion on it… you know what I mean?
Yeah. Yeah, I had a… I was in a class and someone was presenting--they were kind of waving off Scarlett Johansson as “problematic” and I surprised myself by coming to her defense [laughs], because especially for women in Hollywood I do have this kind of, uh--I think their options are so limited as far as roles… I think it can be awfully difficult, where you’re just presented with an array of bad options and you choose the least bad one. And you know, you have to try to not get skewered for what’s in front of you. So I--I think it’s a complicated, not exactly enviable position even though these are powerful people.
I mean [laughs]--it’s complicated!
That’s probably the best way to describe it.