Artist Jay Shaw on his love of bizarre cinema and even more bizarre film posters
"If I can avoid putting anything from the movie in the movie poster, then I'm doing okay," says artist Jay Shaw. His film- poster art, which has taken off over the past year as he's worked with Austin collectible art boutique Mondo, rarely includes characters, actors or anything from the actual movie. Rather, he's inspired by Polish poster artists from the '60s and '70s whose abstract move posters, he explains, are "almost like they had a fever dream about the movie the night after they watched it and then they woke up and they drew their weird dream." Shaw recently designed a special edition, commemorative print for the Denver FilmCenter's wonderfully weird cinema series The Watching Hour, which kicks off tonight, Friday, November 2 with The American Scream and special Starz Denver Film Festival programming at the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax.
Jay Shaw This limited edition commemorative Watching Hour poster was designed by Jay Shaw.
We caught up with Shaw to talk about his love of weirdo film, working with Mondo, and The Watching Hour.
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Westword: When did you start noticing movie-poster art?
Jay Shaw: I've been collecting movie posters forever. My mom used to take us to a video store and they had boxes of, like, the posters that they weren't gonna put up. They were always for movies that I loved but nobody else seemed to care about, like Chopping Mall, things like that. They would let me rummage through the box and just take whatever, because it was just posters they'd get sent from companies and they'd go, "We're not gonna put these up anywhere, these are offensive, these are gross, these are terrible." So my room as a kid was just plastered with these movie posters. And then later on I actually started collecting them and now I've got a pretty big collection. But it's all just weirdo movies; it's not, like, valuable posters. It's all crap nobody really wants. [Laughs}.
How did you get into creating your own film posters?
It was a completely random fluke last year. I did a couple of bootleg posters for some David Cronenberg movies that I loved and for some reason people really liked them, and they said, "You should do more of these." So I said, I guess so. I kind of kept doing it and all of a sudden, at the beginning of this year, the guys at Mondo took notice and they asked me if I wanted to do a couple of things for them, and then it happened.
What's your process for creating a poster?
Everything I do is kind of, I don't know if you're familiar with Polish film posters or Czechoslovakian film posters or any of the mid-century Eastern European stuff, but they're really, really, really weird posters for movies. A lot of them were American films, but they do their own posters. So when they release a movie over there, they don't just import our poster and slap other text on it like a lot of other countries. In Poland especially through the '60s and '70s, they would just completely illustrate the poster themselves and do a whole new thing. They had maybe a dozen or so really really popular illustrators there who would just constantly churn out movie posters. And they're inventive but really crazy posters: you almost don't know if they've seen the movie or not. It's like, utterly bizarre and you're like, what in the world is this? But it makes you wanna see the film. Whereas our posters, they don't really do that all the time. We're really big on actors, we're really big on names, we're really big on themes where, like, this is an explosion movie, so we gotta have explosions in the poster. The designers in Poland, they didn't care at all. If they ever did watch the movie it's almost like they had a fever dream about the movie the night after they watched it and then they woke up and they drew their weird dream.
So that's kind of the idea. I'm like a really half-assed version of that. So I'll watch a movie and then try to boil it down to, like, its most basic imagery, whatever the film's about, and try to avoid anything obvious about the movie. I just try to get rid of anything you'd normally think, like, this is what the poster would look like, or oh, it'll feature this actor. I hate that stuff. I never wanna do that. Like, if I can avoid putting anything from the movie in the movie poster, then I'm doing okay. [Laughs.] And I don't know why that's so attractive to me, but I just want to avoid absolutely everything that was in the movie.
I just did a Paranormal Activity 4 poster, and I was working with Paramount and the two directors, and they're awesome because they love these kind of posters. But I did one where it literally featured this demon throwing a house into a bunch of witches, and the demon is never shown in any of these movies. He's a character, but he's invisible. And I just went ahead and drew him. And they were like, what are you doing? We can't use that. We're not gonna show him; we haven't even figured out what he looks like ourselves. And I said, yeah, but you know it's as if you watch the movie and you kind of have a nightmare about it and then this would be the nightmare. Because there's the big, kind of creepy, weird-looking thing throwing your family into a pit with a bunch of hands reaching out.
So did you then have to revise it and do a different version?
You know, they were really cool about it. I actually did another version of it because they said, we're really not 100 percent keen on literally showing the monster that we've never shown, so we love it, but we don't really know that we can do it, so can you do another one? And I did, and it was a little more straightforward. It was still the same kind of weirdness. Nothing I do is gonna be normal. It's a pretty far-out poster, but that one was as straightforward as I can get. But they were cool enough to let us release both of them, so the totally weird one that I made, they let us put that out as a small variant kind of a run that didn't have very many prints. The weirdos that collect the stuff that I make, they'll be really happy with it and they'll say yeah, this is great, but when it gets to studios and people that have anything to do with the film they kind of go, what? This is terrible. I did one for Rocky III that's a fist punching out of a tiger, and that was a very divisive thing because people were going, this is the dumbest poster ever. And other people said this is really great, I love it. So there's a lot of revisions that have to happen.