5 W's by Matthew Porter
[Step Inside Design, November | December 2004]
Marc English is an acquired taste. Kind of like unfiltered Camels, jalapeno peppers and tequila for breakfast. This writer first got a "taste" of English when I saw and heard him clank into a room at AIGA Austin's infamous Design Ranch wearing more metal and leather than Mad Max while performing a version of that kitsch Kuntry classic, Turkey in the Straw, that made everyone ashamed of themselves. But, like a lot of things you shouldn't have, once you've had a little snort of English, you're kind of hooked. He's the closest thing we have in AIGA to Johnny Cash. He adopted Austin as his home and milieu ten years ago and has subsumed its cultural and visual language. As a board member of the Austin Film Society English came to know writer-director Richard Linklater, creator of the cult favorite, Slacker, which was filmed in and premiered in Austin in 1991. Criterion specializes in gathering great films from around the world and publishing them in editions of high technical quality with award-winning, original supplements. The company decided to assemble such a package for Slacker's many fans. Linklater encouraged them to use English because a.) He understood Linklater b.) He understood the film and c.) He understood Austin's funky culture.
When asked if it was unusual to have an elaborate package design for a film that cost only about $25,000 to make, English was thoughtful: "Unusual for most, not for them [The Criterion Collection]," says English. "These are the collectible editions that get even the directors, cinematographers, writers, et cetera, excited. They put a lot into their products by adding extensive archival materials, scholarly commentaries, early shorts, shooting scripts, interviews, and essays - the works. With a portfolio of films by Truffault, Kurosawa, Fellini, Fassbinder, Bergman, Scorsese, Bunuel - a who's who of great directors - they have to fashion packages that reflect that level of greatness. Sure, it's a movie about slackers but it is also the first low-budget indie to make a huge impact on American film - it was a standard bearer. The design had to capture the essence of that history and the rich, odd personality of the film itself."
Slacker was filmed in Austin, Texas. Richard Linklater, as well as Marc English, live and work in the city today. In looking for material to use in the design, English - as principal photographer - and his assistant, Bart Kibbe roamed the streets of Austin over several days, seeing how the environment could be used as a design element. In the film, the setting plays the role of a principal actor (there are 100+ different, interrelated characters featured in the film). In the design, Austin doesn't simply become the backdrop - it becomes the star.
The studio created custom art for every on-screen menu, utilizing appropriate materials (duct tape, cardboard, labels, flyers, dirty plates, spray paint, guitar cases, corrugated tin), which required more production effort on the part of client Criterion, than designing the standard formatted template. English used a CANON EOS-D60 digital to shoot much of the art (archive materials were supplied by the director) and used a raw, hand-cut foam stencil to make the logotype, even spraying it on the asphalt behind his office. The famous "Pap Smear Pusher" (this woman tries to sell Madonna's pap smear tab and a sample pubic hair in the film and her image was used in the film's original one sheets, etc.) was printed off at the office, wrinkled, sprayed with water, then dried and affixed to a telephone pole. Viola! Instant indie fake guerrilla marketing promo.
As mentioned, the film debuted in 1991 and saw a short but successful run in art house theatres from New York to Los Angeles. Shortly after it, other low-budget indie films began to capture the imagination of film enthusiasts and the interest of distributors. English, with his assistants, Bart Kibbe and Michael Nowlin, shot all the art that appears in the on-screen menus, the DVD sleeve, the 68-page book and the DVD disc faces on several scorching June days this summer. The Criterion Collection released the package for sale in September of 2004.
English explains it best: "The film is a cult fave, and has been since its release. Add to that the film geeks, cineastes and filmmakers, and you've got a crowd. I would think that as writers have certain books on their shelves, musicians certain albums, filmmakers would have this as reference. As for the concept for the packaging, Linklater's films are known for their writing, their words, how people interact. It was a no-brainer to litter the book with lines from the film, sometimes randomly, sometimes in conjunction with specific art. One could argue that you could step into the film at any point, as there is no plot. Same goes for every aspect of this project - they are part of a whole, but each can exist on its own."