Art of the Prank is a feature documentary about New York artist Joey Skaggs, the godfather of the media hoax. Famed for such media fictions as the Celebrity Sperm Bank, the Cathouse for Dogs, the Fat Squad, and Portofess (the mobile confessional booth), all reported as fact by prestigious journalists, he’s one of America’s greatest living satirists. When he decides to pull off the most demanding hoax of his career, filmmaker Andrea Marini gets a unique view into the mind of this most unconventional man.
The resulting film is an emotional and humorous journey of will and determination following the evolution of an artist who has dedicated his life to seeking social change by relentlessly challenging the status quo. Filmed in New York, Connecticut, London, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Kentucky and Tennessee, and with unprecedented access to the man and his archives, the 82-minute documentary reveals the man behind the curtain, interweaving his current unfolding hoax with a look behind-the-scenes at some of his classic performance pieces.
‘Art of the Prank’ premieres at the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival on Sunday, January 24, and screens again on Wednesday, January 27, 2016 in Park City, Utah.
In documentary coverage, the natural first question is: How did you first come across this subject? What was it that drew you to the subject? Why did you decide this was an engaging story to tell at the feature level?
This brings me back to 2012, when I was working with a producer, Michele Malfetta, on a narrative feature. After a few weeks working together on the script he came to me and said he had recently met this interesting artist, Joey Skaggs, and his collaborator Judy Drosd (who eventually became the producer with me on Art of the Prank). He had had a long conversation with them and it seemed like there was a chance to do a film about him. I wasn’t familiar with Joey at the time so he sent me a piece about him from ABC TV’s 20/20. I watched it that same night and I was completely blown away! The next day, we decided to put what we were doing on hold and start working on what eventually became Art of the Prank. Obviously, at the beginning, I had only a vague idea of what this could be. But what I discovered later was a fascinating world that had to be shown, and I was honored to be the one doing it.
What was your original approach to constructing this film’s narrative? How did that approach change over its production? (if it did)
My first approach was really trying to understand how to balance the main storyline (the present) with Joey’s amazing hoaxes from the past 5 decades. From the very beginning, I wanted to be flexible with the initial structure I came up with. And, it definitely changed over time, a lot! The fact that I and my editor, Emanuele Muscolino, were working on the edit before I was finished shooting had a big impact on constructing the right narrative for the film. Editing as the story is unfolding is really a double edge sword. It’s very good on the one hand, because you are aware of where you are going and what you might be missing. But, on the other hand, you can get stuck with sequences that work very well if isolated, but not so well in the bigger picture.
Structure-wise we kept changing the film until the very end, doing some significant changes during the final week of editing. Emanuele and I had a continuous collaboration. Sometimes exhausting. I remember weeks when we were working simultaneously on different parts of the film. I like to put hands on the edit for specific sequences. The only problem with this is that I’m never 100% satisfied. And when you edit yourself, it can seemingly go on forever, and you can easily lose sight of the bigger picture. Luckily, everything I did as a final adjustment worked very well.
What was your approach to the aesthetic of the film? How did you want the visuals to move the narrative forward?
I decided from the very beginning to approach this film with a cinema-vérité directorial style. This conferred the realism I was looking for and created a good contrast between the story I was following, the interviews and the archival footage. The interviews have a common thread as far as aesthetics, a wide shot and a hand-held close up with a zoom lens. The hand-held and the zoom had to be part of the narration, in stressing a concept or enhancing a pause, for example. I decided to have my interviewees set up in a location that “belongs” to them, except for one specific interview of Joey, the one on the brick wall. I wanted that to be a “non“-place, a very intimate setting, both in lighting and location. The strong lateral close-up from a slightly high angle (same for the wide shot), confers a sense of humbleness.
What was the single most memorable aspect of creating ‘Art of the Prank’? How did the film’s subject, Joey Skaggs, and his work, end up influencing your own?
The whole project was a very steep learning curve for me, from making a documentary feature to getting to know Joey and learning about his art. Most important to me, is how my awareness was raised on many serious issues, all related to what Joey is constantly criticizing. And, even though this is huge, it’s not all. I’ve learned a lot about how to structure a story and how to make it effective (I hope), both from creating the film and from working with a storyteller like Joey.
In your opinion, and as Joey’s art is very activist based, where do you see the role of contemporary art activism? Surely with so many issues in the world art has its place, but where do you stand on contemporary activist art as being original? Or, to put it another way, distinctly 21st Century? Does it have to be?
I can only speak for myself. What I’m doing now is trying to raise awareness with the tools I have. I’m doing a few projects now with my collaborators because I believe that filmmaking is such a strong medium to raise consciousness, to give a voice to those people who don’t really have one, or to shine a light into darkness. I’m not saying that a single action can save the world or change a reality, but I really believe that if more and more artists use their talents to raise awareness, we can impact people’s hearts. Then they can decide whether they want to change their behaviors or not.
After Slamdance, where to next with ‘Art of the Prank’?
We have many things lined-up. First of all we’ll see how it goes with film festivals, but in the meantime to me it is very important to have this film shown in museums, art events, cultural events etc. So, we are scheduling a lot of special events now, as we work on our strategic plan for distribution.