2015 Tribeca Film Festival Filmmaker Profile: Leah Wolchok (Director – ‘Very Semi-Serious’)

Very Semi-Serious‘ is an offbeat meditation on humor, art and the genius of the single panel. The film takes an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at the New Yorker and introduces the cartooning legends and hopefuls who create the iconic cartoons that have inspired, baffled—and occasionally pissed off—all of us for decades.

With ‘Very Semi-Serious’, viewers get an unprecedented glimpse into the process behind the cartoons. Legends Roz Chast and Mort Gerberg submit their work alongside hopefuls like graphic novelist Liana Finck. While on the other side of the desk, Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff sifts through hundreds of submissions every week to bring readers a carefully curated selection of insightful and humorous work, striving to nurture new talent and represent the magazine’s old guard, while also considering how his industry must evolve to stay relevant.

Anticipating the WORLD PREMIERE of ‘Very Semi-Serious‘ we interviewed the film’s Director Leah Wolchok about The New Yorker’s past, present and future, as well as her own inspirations and relationships with the magazine, and more.

Very Semi Serious‘ screens at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, April 19, Monday, April 20, Tuesday, April 21, and Thursday, April 23, 2015 in New York City.

Find More Information & Tickets to ‘Very Semi Serious’ at the 2015 Tribeca Film FestivalHERE

The Very Semi-Serious logo pays homage to the eclectic mix of characters featured over eight decades in the New Yorker, from Gluyas Williams’s martini drinker of 1938 to Roz Chast’s polite Canadian of 2012.

The Very Semi-Serious logo pays homage to the eclectic mix of characters featured over eight decades in the New Yorker, from Gluyas Williams’s martini drinker of 1938 to Roz Chast’s polite Canadian of 2012.

What was your relationship with the New Yorker before filming?
I wish I could say it was love at first sight. It was more of a stalking relationship. I was the stalker. The New Yorker didn’t know I existed.

If you want to start from the beginning, love for The New Yorker skipped a generation in my family. My mom’s parents used to subscribe to the magazine in the 50s in Savannah, Georgia. But we didn’t get The New Yorker at home when I was a kid. I didn’t discover the magazine until I started reading the short fiction in college.

It took many years of persistence and prodding to get the New Yorker to agree to the documentary. I started filming with cartoonists long before our cameras were allowed into the magazine.

How did you get the inspiration/funding for this documentary?
It all started with a stack of unread New Yorkers on the floor by my bed. The issues piled up, week after week, all the incisive reporting and impeccable fact-checking, all the umlauts and em dashes, wasted on me. The only thing I consistently read cover to cover was, of course, the scattering of cartoons. I was a classic Cartoon Firster (a term coined by Nancy Franklin in her essay in The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker)

And then, in 2005, the weekly Caption Contest was born. I was born again, this time as a Back Page Firster. I obsessed over the contest for months. Nothing.

Then came Contest #55.

New_Yorker_Caption_Contest_55

I submitted what I thought was a pretty darn good caption. Sorry, I only date organic. It works, right? I later learned my stroke of wit was one of hundreds of nearly identical captions submitted that week.

If I wasn’t good enough to caption a cartoon, maybe I should study the people who are good enough. The cartoonists. For the first time, I started paying attention to the signature at the bottom of each cartoon. Who are the people behind the signatures? And how do they come up with so many subtle and sophisticated ideas? I started researching the cartoonists (first surprise: there are dozens of regular contributors), learning about their routines (they submit 10-15 a week, every week, to the magazine), rejection (even some of the best cartoonists sell just one a month), rituals (they commiserate about the rejection during weekly lunches, a tradition that started in the early days of the magazine) and day jobs (gravestone portraiture, fit modeling, furniture reconditioning).

And I thought, Why isn’t someone making a documentary about this?

I cold emailed cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, and—to my surprise—he called me right away. So I flew to New York for the New Yorker festival, met all the cartoonists I’d been reading about, and pitched him my idea. An epic film about the past, present and future of cartooning at the New Yorker! The definitive documentary about his beloved craft, his beloved cartoonists, his beloved hair! How could he say no? He said no. 

So I recruited a killer team in New York, including executive producer Bruce Sinofsky, producer Davina Pardo, and DP Kirsten Johnson, and finally, many years and many persistent emails later, we broke in.

The funding? That’s another saga. Looking for funding for an independent documentary is grueling work. We were rejected by many organizations before we ever received our first grant. Over the years, we’ve been fortunate to receive financial and institutional support from Pacific Pioneer Fund, IFP, Tribeca Film Institute, BAVC, San Francisco Film Society, Sundance Institute and Artemis Rising Foundation. We’re also indebted to Kickstarter, which connected us to a community of supporters who helped fund our first round of editing.

Very_Semi_Serious_Press_1What was your relationship like with the artists? How willing were they to open up and let you into their lives?
New Yorker cartoonists are outsider artists working for an insider institution. And they’re not unlike documentary filmmakers. Although their works of art are single images—snapshots of a moment in time—cartoonists, like documentarians, are astute observers who create art as a form of social commentary that elevates daily life from the mundane to the profound.

I was a really shy kid, and because I didn’t talk much, I learned to interact with the world by listening. What I used to perceive as a weakness I now realize is one of the most important qualities you can have as a documentary filmmaker. I listen. I wait. In interviews, I don’t try to fill the silence with chatter. I slowly and steadily built relationships with the cartoonists over many years. Those relationships are what allowed me to create a more nuanced portrait of a community, and take a deeper approach to a film that everyone expects will just make them laugh. Don’t worry, you will laugh. A lot. But I hope audiences will see that behind every joke, there’s something else going on.

How difficult was implementing the animation in the film?
When I first pitched the film, I thought we would use much more animation. I had ambitious ideas to animate the imagined worlds of each cartoonist. As the film evolved, I realized it was more important to respect the integrity of the paper-and-ink form. I hired a fantastic motion graphics designer, Mike Nicholson, who owns a studio in Austin called Picturebox. From our first conversation I knew he understood that we needed to find the right balance between making the cartoons cinematic and preserving their original form. My co-producer Joanna Sokolowski created a massive, color-coded spreadsheet that listed all of our cartoons, archival material, and photos. It was a nightmare to organize. And, of course, there was the brutal 7-hour time difference between Austin, where Mike lives, and Paris, where I now live. We would leave little shorthand notes for each other on the spreadsheet. Boring details like Can you cut 10 frames off the head of TOON-18b and hold 5 more frames before the zoom out? Somehow, Mike and his team sorted through everything and miraculously delivered all the graphics within a month. I don’t think they slept at all. I know I didn’t.

(Hand of Liza Donnelly) Photographer: Liam Dalzell

(Hand of Liza Donnelly)
Photographer: Liam Dalzell

Does the New Yorker still have an important role today?
When I first met the cartoonists, everyone was talking about the uncertain future of the publishing industry. Newspapers and magazines were closing their doors and the cartoonists wondered if their craft would be forgotten. Over the years, as the smartphone and tablet versions of The New Yorker have found new audiences, cartoonists now worry less about the future of the form and more about the future of cartooning as a viable career. The New Yorker is one of the only media outlets that still pays single-panel cartoonists for their work. I can’t comment on the role of the magazine as a whole, but for the community of cartoonists that I’ve grown to care so much about, I’d say the New Yorker is pretty damn important.

– Interview Conducted by Jake Kring-Schreifels

Directo: Leah Wolchok Photographer:  Geraldine Lee

Directo: Leah Wolchok
Photographer: Geraldine Lee

About The Filmmaker
Director/producer Leah Wolchok recently completed a San Francisco Film Society Film House Residency, a BAVC MediaMaker Fellowship, and the IFP Documentary Labs. She co-produced the Independent Lens documentary Ask Not and has directed four award-winning short films.

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Twitter: @verysemiserious

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