Director Michael Sládek gets candid about Con Artist
Though it's largely been forgotten in the annals of crack-pottery and snake-oil salesmanship, the story of Mark Kostabi is one of the art world's weirdest and most head-slappingly dumb. A darling of the high-rolling '80s New York scene, Kostabi and his rise to fame and riches on the backs of his minimum-wage assistants -- whose original work he simply signed and sold as his own -- provide the compelling subject of Con Artist, a new documentary from Denver's own Michael Sládek, who of lately has been riding high himself in the afterglow of almost universally positive responses to the film (the New York Times loved it). In advance of its hometown premier tonight, we caught up with Sládek to talk about Kostabi, moral lessons and growing up in the Queen City.
Westword: You got your start in film, so to speak, working at the Chez Artiste, where you would hang out and watch movies when nobody was around. Tell us about that.
Micheal Sládek: Yeah, at the time it wasn't called the Ches Artiste, it was called the U Hills Theater. I think it was my first real job, besides dog sitting or something like that. It was a last-run theater back then, and it was a little cheaper, so it was kind of a quiet place, and it was so tiny that the staff could be one or two people. So I would just go in and watch the same movies over and over, movies like Wall Street and the Unbearable Lightness of Being. And there'd be some really bad ones, too, but there were a lot of good ones, and I would just watch them over and over and really get to know them.
WW: When did you decide that a career in film was something you wanted to do?
MS: It wasn't until later. I actually stared off in theater very young -- my whole family is very into the performing arts, so I stared off really early wanting to be an actor, and I started doing that literally in elementary school all the way through high school. I directed my first play in 4th grade at Whiteman Elementary in Denver; it was a production of Oliver Twist. Later, I ended up in New York working for MTV, and after a while working in television, I realized that I wanted to direct film. So I quit MTV and just started doing that.
WW: Before this documentary, I have to admit I'd never heard of Mark Kostabi; he's sort of faded into obscurity. What got you interested in him, and what made you want to make a movie about him?
Michael Sládek is surprised.
MS: I had never heard of him, either, actually. I started this project a little over four years ago, and I had never heard of Kostabi and had no intention of making a documentary about anything; I was working on a narrative film. So one summer I was working on picking up freelance gigs, and a friend of mine said I should come on down to this studio, because there's this crazy artist that runs a game show, and the guys who run the cameras are just, you know, they're just painters; they don't know what they're doing. So if you go down there with your knowledge of how to actually make film, you can probably get some work just running the cameras.
So I did that for a summer and got to know Kostabi, and just how crazy and bizarre this whole scene was, and so I eventually realized that I could make sort of a comedy documentary about this fascinating guy and his addiction to fame.
WW: Was that your first experience making a documentary?
MS: I've made a lot of short documentaries mainly for hire, a lot of stuff in the music world, and some in fashion and politics, but this was my first documentary feature.
WW: And are you pleased with the results?
MS: Very much. You know, you start a documentary with an idea in your head and then the idea changes -- you're not working off a script, you're just writing and editing and shooting and feeling your way along, almost blindly in some ways. But in the end, it sort of became what I wanted it to be, and it became what it wanted to be, too. But people seem to like it. It's also pleasing that it's not just art world people that like it, it's not super esoteric -- actually, in many ways, the art world is kind of on the fence about it. But it's great to see regular folks kind of walking out and laughing and shaking their heads.
WW: Yeah, he's a character -- but I feel like this story is in some ways kind of a cautionary tale, like, this is a guy with a very skewed moral compass. I wonder, did you take any personal lessons away from all this?
MS: Get money before you start filming.
WW: Given the subject matter, I'd say that's fitting.
MS: I guess the film has some moral lessons in there somewhere, but I don't know what they are. I think part of what we're happy with is that people walk away with their own lessons about the film. It's sort of about what's important versus what's not, and perhaps those ideas are both challenged and reinforced. There are some contradictions going on, and I hope that makes people think.
Catch the premier of Con Artist tonight at the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax at p.m. For more information, call 303-595-3456.