Obey the Giant: Filmmaker Julian Marshall on Bringing Shepard Fairey to the Big Screen
Photos: Courtesy of the artist.
We’ve all seen his Obama ‘HOPE’ poster, but most of those familiar with the work of street artist Shepard Fairey would be surprised to learn that his first big debut took place on a billboard back in 1990 while he was attending school at the Rhode Island School of Design, located in Providence, RI.
At the time, Shepard was taking an illustration class in which each student was given a fortune cookie and instructed to illustrate the fortune inside. Shepard’s fortune read: “To affect the quality of the day is no small achievement.” In response to this, he decided to paste his now-ubiquitous Andre graphic over the face of controversial former Mayor of Providence, Buddy Cianci, on his re-election billboard located in the heart of the city. To this day, traces of the origin of Shepard’s OBEY GIANT street art campaign can be spotted all over Providence’s College Hill in the form of stickers.
Flash forward from 1990 to 2012, and another RISD student is preparing his own debut that’s already caused quite a ruckus throughout Providence and beyond. Julian Marshall, a senior studying film at RISD, is in the post-production phases of his thesis—a 25-minute narrative film about the early life of Shepard Fairey and the origin story of OBEY. After releasing the trailer and raising over $30,000 on Kickstarter in only four days, Marshall has created a commotion not only throughout the city but also the web. With his sights set on a new Kickstarter goal of $70,000 and plans to enter OBEY THE GIANT into festivals, Marshall clearly has big plans for the future.
OOO: How and when did you first become interested in film?
Marshall: Well that goes back to a ten-year old Julian—I had just started skateboarding and I uncovered a crappy little camcorder in my parent’s basement and started filming skate videos with it… from there it turned into an addiction. So it really began with skateboarding, which then moved to narrative filmmaking and snowboard filmmaking… I mean, I’ve had a camera in my hand for twelve years.
OOO: What brought you to RISD?
Marshall: As luck has it—or has fate has it—I’ve only been taught art by RISD graduates from day one… so I think I was kind of put on a path to come here.
OOO: And you always knew you wanted to go into film?
OOO: So how did you conceive the idea for OBEY THE GIANT?
Marshall: So I spent my summer developing material for my thesis film. The year began and I wasn’t connecting with any of it on the level you need in order to spend eight months to a year on a project and I pulled the plug on it, which is kind of the smartest thing anyone can do when anything isn’t going the right way. Then the next thing is never forcing creativity—I just did a ton of research and reading over the summer but at a certain point you’ve just got to let it go and let ideas come to you instead of forcing it. One morning I had just woken up and I was lying in bed, staring at the OBEY icon poster on my wall that [Shepard Fairey] had given me when I interned for him and I thought ‘well what better story to tell as a RISD student than a story of a RISD student, and a prominent RISD alum.’ I had the connection to Shep having worked for him, so I emailed his wife, Amanda, pitched her the project, and a week later I heard back and she said, “Okay, Shepard’s really excited about the project, come out to LA and let’s talk about it,” and that’s where it began.
OOO: Very cool—so I know you have his approval and his life rights for that period of time, but how involved is he actually in the project?
Marshall: I mean I went out to LA and I interviewed him basically, for three hours—we just talked about everything relative to his early life—and that’s where it stopped. So he basically wanted the most impartial look into his story as possible, because he doesn’t want it to look like he’s pulling the strings. That’s kind of what I was able to provide: a very independent look into the story. I interviewed so many people on the same story and figured out what the truth was from that, and then built a narrative around that and made it entertaining while still being extremely factual.
OOO: So it sounds like he’s being pretty casual about the whole thing, but does he want to review it before it’s released or anything?
Marshall: He hasn’t asked much of me, I mean, I hadn’t even shown him the screenplay until maybe two days before going into production, and I kind of just decided I should send it to him and see what he had to say about it. He called me back and we just got to talk about it for a couple hours—he really enjoyed it, we got to talk about what was factual and where I strayed a little bit. So, I’ve just been showing it to him along the way to get his input.
OOO: Has he told you to change anything?
Marshall: No, he does not want to be pulling the strings at all, and he’s basically told me I have created a very fair and factual movie. Well, actually, let’s start from the beginning of it: I built the story with my friend Alex Jablonski [the editor I worked underneath when I worked for Shepard], and Alex wrote the screenplay—he’s got the screenplay credit on the film—and I directed. The big difference between this project and a regular thesis film is that most of the time RISD students are doing everything on the projects. They’re writing, directing, doing some shooting, editing, and at this point [my film] was so big and I wanted to be able to stick to directing and big picture so accurately that it made sense to bring in collaborators. That’s the way film works—you bring in collaborators to make one big vision. So everything within this movie is my vision, it was my creative decision. I’m also an executive producer on the project, which means that I raised all of the money, and I hired most of the people and brought the team together.
OOO: How much money did you raise with the original pre-production Kickstarter?
Marshall: The original Kickstarter was a $30,000 Kickstarter and I think it raised about $2,000, and then I was contacted by I guess what I would call an angel investor. She told me she wanted to see the project happen and that she would give us whatever money we needed to get going. So I ended the Kickstarter and I was like ‘Alright, I might be able to launch a Kickstarter later and it’ll be more strategic once I have the trailer anyways.’ So this was my strategy early on.
OOO: What was your biggest challenge in making the film?
Marshall: My biggest challenge… well, everything was a challenge. I mean, it’s astounding to me that any movie gets made. Making a movie is like swimming against the current for a year straight. The biggest thing running against me was time. We had five, six weeks to write the story, six weeks to prep the film and two weeks to shoot it. It takes six months to write a story in real life—writing a story in six weeks is almost impossible. So I mean, given more time—I mean everything gets better with time to a certain extent.
OOO: What did you work mostly consist of before this project? How does all of the work you’ve done in past years relate to this film now?
Marshall: I’ve been strategically building up to this point for years—I have very strong goals and I’m very adamant about hitting them. So, every year you just make a project and get bigger, you get larger resources, develop story, develop cinematography and build and build and build your social network until you’ve got a track record large enough to produce a project of this scale.
OOO: So what are your plans for OBEY THE GIANT?
Marshall: The plan for this movie is to send it to festivals, like my goal is really Sundance—that’d be my dream—and hopefully there might be some sort of Internet distribution system for the film. Big picture, I want this film to be my calling card to be able to cut the crap as soon as I graduate and just start directing media, and I think that will be likely.
OOO: Beyond OBEY, what are your plans post-RISD?
Marshall: I want to be directing features. Very simply stated, I want to start out on the independent side and hopefully someday move into the studio side, but with a level of creative control that means you’re not spitting out crap.
OOO: Are there any directors that you aspire to be like?
Marshall: Absolutely. Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher. I mean, those are all huge names, but those are the movies I enjoy.
You can check out the OBEY THE GIANT trailer and contribute to Julian Marshall’s Kickstarter project here.