Published on November 16th, 2013 | by Chris Campbell1
Far Out Isn’t Far Enough
Brad Bernstein’s recent documentary, Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, chronicles the peculiar life of a subversive and perverse Alsatian illustrator and author. Check out the film’s iTunes page – it’s a small documentary, but everywhere the film has been, from Durban to Dublin to Warsaw to Cleveland, people have taken to it on a grand scale.
Corner of the Cave Media / Photography by Sam Norval
CC: You opened the New York Times back in 2008. You read a story titled ‘Watch the Children, That Subversive is Back,’ which is about Tomi Ungerer’s work being reintroduced to American bookshelves after having his material banned in the late sixties. You ran into your colleague’s edit room, and told him Tomi would be the subject of your next documentary? Do I have all this right?
BB: You sure do. My colleague was Rick Cikowski who ended up editing, co-producing and creating most of the graphics & animation in the film. And we’ve since become business partners. So after that I wrote up an initial treatment and sent it along to Tomi’s museum in Strasbourg. And wouldn’t you know it, not too many months after that, I came home from work one day to find a letter in my mailbox of a cat using his paw and penning the words, “call me any time—but early.” It was classic Tomi Ungerer.
CC: What was it about Tomi Ungerer’s story that instigated your curiosity instantly & profoundly?
BB: I think it was the fact that Tomi was not only a witness to the seminal events of the 20th century, but also a participant of sorts. Since he was three years old, he was drawing what he saw: death, occupation, absurdity and revolution, all captured with the sharp tip of his pencil. So I knew that I had history, I had troves of art saved in a museum and I had a classic character. You could tell just by reading that article in the Times that Tomi would be good on-camera if I could just get him to trust me. And that’s ultimately what happened.
Corner of the Cave Media / Photography by Sam Norval
CC: Was part of the allure the fact that America had swept such a vibrant talent into the dustbin? He’s been described as the most famous children’s book author you have never heard of. And, I mean we’re talking about a guy who played a huge part in both Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak getting published right? I think in your doc Maurice Sendak states, “No one, I dare say, no one was as original…Tomi influenced everybody.”
BB: Yeah, that was the other side of this whole deal: how could someone who was so influential for over a decade be entirely and so utterly forgotten? That was the crux of all this: what happened that forced the collective memory in this country to forget a man who introduced Shel Silverstein to kids books? Who lived with Philip Roth in the Hamptons? Who created the poster for Dr. Strangelove? How could a man like this get lost in history? I had to get to the bottom of that question.
Art by Tomi Ungerer / Phaidon Press
CC: Your film is titled Far Out Isn’t Far Enough. It is a zesty documentary full of color and life. Can you give my readers a brief rundown of the film? And can you paint a brief picture of the strikingly contrasting realms in which Tomi dabbled? The children’s books…the Vietnam posters…the risqué work, etc.
BB: Well, I like to think of the film as a bouillabaisse of absurdity and hard truths. Tomi is the most truthful person I know and he knows he’s full of faults and failures. All of that comes out in the film. Tomi also understands that he is marked by his past, a past chock full of Nazi’s, oppression, artistic expression, sexual exploration, a childlike spirit and a love and appreciation for children and so on. The film touches on all of these topics and explains how they all were – and are – a part of Tomi’s life.
Diogenes Verlag / Musee Tomi Ungerer
CC: Tomi could have easily avoided the flagrant puritanical backlash to his erotica by publishing it under a pseudonym. He chose not to avoid it. Did Tomi believe it to be a betrayal of self to conceal art he was proud of?
BB: I don’t think he could easily have avoided it. His mind would never have allowed that. Tomi doesn’t ever do the easy thing and he certainly doesn’t shy away from saying what he is thinking, or doing what he is thinking. So I don’t think he chose not to avoid it; I think that was never an option.
But another thing we have to remember is that Tomi was a European in 1960’s America. I don’t think he fully understood the forces at play here—he was living in an artistic, progressive scene in New York City. I don’t think he understood America at that time, really. He only fit in because he was so uber talented and so he achieved success right when he got here in ’56. But it was only over time that he realized what this country was made of, and how it could affect his freedom of expression and artistic pursuits.
CC: Before we get too far into this interview, let’s take a peek at you. For over a decade you’ve been involved with long form documentary projects…for CBS, Animal Planet, ESPN, and you’re currently the staff writer for VH1’s Behind The Music, most recently writing the Ludacris episode. What is it like producing media consumed on a such a grand scale? What is it like working with big names day in and day out?
BB: Yeah, it’s been an amazing 15-year run working in TV. We do work with a lot of big names and I’ve interviewed a lot of interesting people in that time. But really, all the fluff just boils down to one thing, always: is it a good story? Without good storytelling there’s no substance at all, and then not even the biggest names can save you.
Corner of the Cave Media / Photography by Sam Norval
CC: And, after working inside these organizations can you talk about what it’s like to co-found Corner of the Cave Media, and have the creative license to follow spur of the moment leads? Like you did with Tomi?
BB: See, that’s a great question. All of the TV stuff I did as a freelancer for many years was preparation for the real work that we’re doing now as a team at Corner of the Cave Media. All the experiences and the lessons and the mistakes—now it’s time to put it all into action. And we have. We’ve been in business for three years and we’ve struck a really good balance of creating network shows and building a client base, but we also have our own projects that are on a slow boil. Getting to TIFF was an incredible experience, but getting back to TIFF is now the challenge.
CC: Did curiosity ever get you in trouble in childhood? What is the single most lasting characteristic that’s remained a part of you since youth? Why do you think it’s survived, and how does it fit into your desire to document?
BB: Nice question. My mom was a history teacher and my dad only read biographies. My love for and passion of history is what has marked me, and it’s what led to finding Tomi’s story so interesting when I read about him in the New York Times article. Without my love of history I don’t think I’d find his art and his story so impressionable.
Image by Polis Poliviou.
CC: Far Out Isn’t Far Enough is full of curious animation, of superbly edited stock footage, lively interviews and shots from places Tomi lived…Alsace, NYC, Ireland, Nova Scotia. Also, the interviews are conducted in Tomi’s residences. What was it like? Going to his space? Hanging out with him?
BB: Oh man, it was amazing. I remember when we got to France to first shoot Tomi; we arrived and he wanted to get to know us before we interviewed him. My crew and I shared six bottles of $300 wine with Tomi and we rolled an entire bag full of cigarettes. At the end of the day he said he was ready to shoot the following morning and as we left his apartment to go to our hotel, he put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Brad, you are now my favorite Jew from New York.” I knew then it would be hard not to like my subject. And we’ve had many drinking and hanging out sessions since then, and I consider him now a very close friend.
CC: For the film, you also spent a full day with Maurice Sendak before he passed away. That’s incredible! How did those cards fall into place? I heard he rushed you up to see him because he sensed his impending death?
BB: I told Tomi we had to get Maurice and I asked him if he’d call him to make an introduction for me. He was reluctant because they hadn’t spoken in many years—I think well over 10 years. But Tomi called him and he said, “you need to call him right now—I don’t know, he doesn’t sound so good.”
At that point I was nervous as all hell! I mean, I literally grew up on Where The Wild Things Are. I spent so many nights dreaming of Max as a child. But also, I had heard Maurice was a grouch, a recluse, just mean. So I called him and he couldn’t have been nicer. I mean, he was just cool. But he told me I better get up there soon as he was going to die any day! The entire conversation was about his impending death and that set me totally at ease. So my crew and I got up to his home in Connecticut and he was just wonderful and charming and friendly. The still pictures I have from that day are cherished pieces of my life and career now.
Image by InsoOutso.
CC: The film focuses on Tomi’s art, but it also dives into the deep undercurrents of Tomi’s psychology, specifically his sense of displacement. His father passed when he was very young. He grew up in Alsace, which is a land area that has shifted hands so many times over the centuries that it’s without identity. Tomi was forced to attend Nazi school during German occupation. He showed up in NYC with $60 at a time America was undergoing intense, simultaneous revolutions. The documentary encapsulates all of these transformative forces, and somehow maps Tomi’s psychology. Were you amazed by the incredible depth, by how rich and layered the documentary became?
BB: Yeah, we really were. Rick and I would have these martini sessions where we’d work for like 16 hours and cut a scene and then we’d kick back with martinis and throw that day’s work up on Apple TV in his living room. And after we’d watch each segment we kept saying to ourselves, “this just feels epic.” It felt like we were capturing something very important, that we were telling a story that would resonate with a lot of people. And you know what? It’s a small documentary but everywhere the film has been, from Durban to Dublin to Warsaw to Cleveland, people have really taken to it. The film and Tomi have struck a deep nerve with people and the feedback has been extraordinary.
CC: It serves to mention, that though Tomi’s father had passed, he wasn’t without a stellar parental role model. His mother was one hell of a woman, wasn’t she? Mega talented, with a backbone made of steel? When the Nazis banned Alsatians from speaking French, she didn’t yield, and when she was turned in for it she chewed a Nazi’s ear off? And got her way?!
BB: Yeah, she seemed pretty amazing. However, Tomi had a very conflicted relationship with her in fact. We didn’t get into it in the film because there was enough story, but he has very mixed emotions about his mother. You can get a taste of it in his book No Kiss For Mother.
CC: Another striking moment in the documentary was the acute annoyance Tomi had walking through a museum displaying his work. Shuddering, Tomi said he felt allergic to his old drawings. What was it like being around a person with such heightened sensitivity?
BB: Honestly, I found it very calming. I think his anxiety and uncertainty actually made me more focused and aware that I needed to capture it. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but I felt good about it when it was happening and I knew I just had to remain calm and not disturb the water even more than it was rippling!
CC: And, to steal one from the great James Lipton…if heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? And, if you’re up for taking a stab at how you think Maurice Sendak and Tomi Ungerer would answer that question both my readers and I would love to hear your guesses.
BB: Ha! I used to love that show. I bet I know what Maurice would say: “The Fag on the Hill has finally arrived!” He actually said that to me quite a few times the day I got to spend time with him. As for Tomi, I wouldn’t even venture a guess—he’s way too Far Out for me.
Check out the documentary’s Facebook page for more info.