Artist Jay Shaw on his love of bizarre cinema and even more bizarre film posters

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Jay Shaw
What are some of your favorite posters ever?

Honestly I think the best movie poster ever made is for a Robert Downey Sr. film called Putney Swope. It's basically just this hand on a complete white background, and its middle finger is up, but the middle finger is this beautiful black woman with this huge afro. And it's just giving a big middle finger to advertising and Madison Avenue, and that's kind of what the whole movie's about. It comes from the era of blaxploitation films, so it's not really something a lot of people have seen. It's about a guy named Putney Swope who accidentally becomes the head of an advertising agency and the catch there is that he's this really awesome, militant black man, so he turns it into what an advertising agency would be if that type of person were ever allowed to run one. So it's just this really neat. It's all black and white, very few people I think have seen it. But that's my favorite movie poster of all time. It's like the coolest poster ever.

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There's a bunch of them. Frank Kozik did a really wonderful Dazed and Confused poster, in 1994 I think, when the movie was first coming out and they were doing the premiere in Austin. It looked like a gig poster. It's this really super-great, psychedelic, weird thing that features Wooderson's car instead of any characters right on the front of it. It's really bright and there's all kinds of wildness going on. I love that poster. And I don't know, there's a bunch of really great ones. There's a pretty controversial Cabaret poster. It's a Polish Cabaret poster for the film and it's this really outlandish-looking illustration of Liza Minnelli but she's got four legs and they're bent into the shape of a swastika. It's a beautiful, beautiful poster but that doesn't hang up in a lot of living rooms.

Can you talk about how you got connected with The Watching Hour and created the poster for the film festival?

Last year, when I very, very first started doing posters -- and mind you, I've been to art school, I've been doing art the whole time, I just never bothered to try to do it commercially -- but last year I started doing posters and people kind of liked them and I got a few gigs and I got hired to do some gig posters and a few movie posters. And I was thinking, wow, maybe this will be a career. I can actually do this, I can work on this, I can make this happen. And I'm a little old to be starting a new career, but whatever. I thought, I'll try. And I actually went to Keith [Garcia, Denver FilmCenter programming manager], and I took everything I have, like, all the nerves I had in me bundled up, and I went to the FilmCenter and I found him and said hey, listen, I'm starting to do movie posters and I was wondering if maybe you'd want me to do some stuff for Watching Hour, because I love the series and it's the exact movies that I'm into. He was really polite about it, he was like, "Yeah, sure man, send me your stuff, send me a few of your posters and we'll think about it and see what's up." And I went home and I gathered up everything I'd made that was worth anything and I wrote this e-mail, I probably rewrote it ten times, because I thought that would be, like, my big break. And so I wrote this e-mail over and over and over again and I sent it to him and I never ever got a response. Worst rejection ever. [Laughs.]

Admittedly, the posters at that point, they weren't great. I hadn't kind of broken out and found a voice. I was just aping other people's styles, and if I saw them now I would say, I don't know, man, that's not a very good poster. But I never heard from him and I was like, that really stings. It was a mixture of disappointment and almost, you know, weird indignation where I was like, I'm never going to the Watching Hour. I'm never going to watch a movie at the FilmCenter. [Laughs.] I'm very emotional about things and I was ranting and raving about it. And then out of nowhere I heard from them, somewhat recently this year, and they said, hey, do you wanna do something? Let's meet. And this is obviously after I've had some success in the poster world and I reminded Keith of that. We went out to coffee and I said, do you remember I came up to you a year ago and asked if I could make posters? And he did remember, he was almost sort of embarrassed about it, and he said, yeah, I remember, anyways, moving on, let's have you do something. It was a really funny kind of moment. I was like, I still hold a grudge, Keith, I still hate that, why did you do that to me? And he's like, I'm so sorry, I don't even know, I don't think there was any reason, we just didn't have a need for posters right then. But yeah, so totally from a rejection to them asking if I wanted to do something.

What was your process for creating the Watching Hour poster?

Oh, this one was super-easy because Keith was awesome about it. He just said, "You know the Watching Hour. You understand what we do, so have fun." And the first thing that came to mind was just, you know, these great old public access channels in the '80s after midnight, where they would just play, like, who knows what. Equipment would break down and it was always that type of like, beyond the Twilight Zone. You know what I mean? Just crazy. I thought to myself, what would be a cool poster if you were trying to advertise for, like public access in like 1984 and they're only gonna play, like, samurai movies and really bad sci-fi? If they wanted a poster. Because that's kind of what Watching Hour is. It's basically this love letter to those types of movies and the type of people who would actually stay up that late and watch them. So that was it. I was just like, all right, let's go with ridiculous and kind of as gaudy as I possibly can. It was lots of pink and kind of turquoise and sort of a random, obscure grid of nothingness and a chrome pyramid with eyes in it and a hand with light coming out. It's just like all these images that don't really mean much of anything, but put together they kind of get across the idea. And I looked at a lot of posters from that era and a lot of the posters are so disconnected from the movies, where the poster's kind of great-looking and then you watch the movie and you're like, nothing in the poster is in this movie at all. That never happened. You can tell they told some artist, look, we just want it to be weird and science fiction, don't worry about the movie, we haven't even started making it yet, but just do the poster, we need that first. It kind of came from that idea; just go nuts and have fun.

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Jay Shaw
What attracts you to doing posters rather than fine art?

It's the subject matter. It's because I'm doing something for a film. I'll be honest, if I were just doing fine art I would probably get really, really bored with it and just not do it. Honestly, I don't think I would be great at it. There are so many wonderful, talented artists out there and I love their art, and I don't know that I'd even want to play in the same pool that they're in because they're so great at it. I don't have those type of ideas; I don't really get inspired to do art for art's sake. I get inspired by watching a movie or listening to a band, or even reading a book and then doing a piece of commercial art for that thing. This is intentionally commercial artwork. It's mean to be an advertisement for somebody else's artistic output. And I feel sort of comfortable in that role, where I can look at somebody else's brilliance and then just try to latch onto that and do something that advertises their greatness.

When I watch a really amazing movie, I can extrapolate some of that director's or that writer's really great ideas, and I can just regurgitate it somehow and come out with what I come out with. I only wanna do it this way. Honestly, if you look at the posters and you took away the titles and the context, I don't really know that it would stand up on its own. I've seen other people's movie posters and I would take the title off and it would be a beautiful piece of art. But if you take away the title, then all of a sudden it loses context and it loses its conceptual meaning. I think it almost makes it a better movie poster in that way. It's so married to the film that it becomes a real part of the poster's soul, if there's such a thing. The praise that I get is when people say, oh man, you really got the movie. You really watched that; you were really paying attention. And yeah, I was, because I love the film. Most of the movie posters I see at the movie theater, it's like, you could exchange the title for another movie. This one's got Ben Affleck in it, this one doesn't. That's the only difference between the posters. But with my posters, at least people can say, this guy really does love these movies. Even if the art's crazy and crap, at least I love the movies.

Shaw's limited edition commemorative poster for The Watching Hour will be available at the Denver FilmCenter Colfax box office for $35. For more art from Jay Shaw, visit his website. Click through to the next page for the full Watching Hour Film Festival schedule.


Location Info

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Sie FilmCenter

2510 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, CO

Category: Film

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