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Art of the Movie Poster #6: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Many critics would agree that Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a great addition to any foreign film/art-house catalogue, but when it comes to distributing Palme d’Or winning films you need a shrewd, savvy studio head to bring the film to market. Strand Releasing added value to their investment by pimping out the one-sheet via the gifted hands of an award-winning comic book artist and cartoonist in Chris Ware.

Many critics would agree that Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a great addition to any foreign film/art-house catalogue, but when it comes to distributing Palme d’Or winning films you need a shrewd, savvy studio head to bring the film to market. Strand Releasing added value to their investment by pimping out the one-sheet via the gifted hands of an award-winning comic book artist and cartoonist in Chris Ware. How would a designer with a geek cred that is secured in the annuls of history for his Acme Novelty Library series as well as the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, and numerous magazine covers and album covers do on the poster one-sheet? The results are art gallery worthy.

The complexity of the work is hidden at first glance, but the more you examine it and pick out the details, the more fascinating and expressive the piece becomes, not to mention impressive. From the four dots highlighting four sequences/settings found in the film, to the motif of life and death, resurrection and rebirth to the luminous gaze of the film’s Monkey Ghost seen through the bright burning eyes and not to mention the neat 80’s Spirograph spiralling circles working the frames, this poster is the ultimate homage – from one gifted artist to another. Ware’s humble approach to his work belies a serious and masterful talent. We’d like to thank both Strand’s infatigable Marcus Hu and Chris Ware for their help with this feature.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives Chris Ware Interview

Brad Sorensen: There’s a brilliant symmetry in this design, playing with the themes of life and death, evolution and change and even recursion; how did you approach this subject matter? Did the pool of water sequence reflection influence the “mirror” portion included in your design? And did you do any type of research outside the contents of the film to come up with this specific design?
Chris Ware: It was simply an attempt to find an easily-readable visual analogue to Weerasethkul’s film; after I watched it, certain images and settings seemed to blend and rhyme in my mind, and I “went with that,” as the kids say. I did try to research Thai graphic design, but realized I was heading into territory about which I knew very little and about which I would like make a naïve or clichèd choice — which, incidentally, I did; Weerasethkul gently asked I change a Thai-like border on the poster edges (his only request, I should add) as it was a little “too Thai.” I’d probably inadvertently included something along the lines of a stars-and-stripes motif from a truck stop placemat without realizing it.

Sorensen: Can you detail the journey to the final design? Did you begin working with several ideas, different concepts that wound up becoming the all-encompassing poster we see now?
Ware: Not really — though I did angrily tear up my first awful, awkward attempt at the typography and draft a “jeez I’m sorry but I cant do this” letter to Marcus Hu, the head of the distribution company, though after a day I calmed down and tried again, and fortunately, it turned out a little better, and I was able to continue on.

Sorensen: How did you develop the color scheme?
Ware: It’s drawn entirely from the film, most specifically from the rainbow-colored Christmas-light funeral sequence towards the end. Though the colors are more high-key and saturated on the poster than what’s in the film, and it’s also disproportionate, as the funeral scene is only a minute or so long, I think.

Sorensen: Did you experiment with a number of fonts and Thai script before developing your own “brand” of font?
Ware: Sort of; I found a Thai font I liked and them flipped, rotated and reversed it, constructing a reference font out of the unfamiliar shapes based on what Roman letterforms they most reminded me of, then I hand-lettered the whole thing. I thought myself very clever for thinking of this until I had the presence of mind to google the other posters that had been done for the film and discovered that another designer had done exactly the same thing, only done it much better. “Sigh”. Plus there were questions of legibility at a distance with my weird font, which I tried to accommodate before it went to press.

Sorensen: The entire poster is a blazing piece of artistry, however I can’t ever look at it without continuously being drawn to the ‘eyes’. Was the film’s titular character’s (monkey ghost) gaze/luminous set of eyes something you wanted to export into the design after having seen the film?
Ware: You’re much too kind. I guess I benefit from the fact that at a very early age we learn to associate two dots with the fixed focus of another consciousness — or preying animal — possibly the first such concept we learn, which I think is why we’re able to tell when someone is looking at us from even fifty yards away. I built the image around that idea, and then from that, of symmetry — which is also one of the primal indicators human beings have of something else being alive, or, secondarily, of being “beautiful,” whatever that is, which I think is also one of the central motifs of the film. (Also, Marcus Hu suggested I use the monkey ghost image, since it’s so arresting.) I blurred its boundaries, however, by echoing the shapes of the Thai hills and the moment in the film when the characters see the moon through the cave opening; whenever I’ve had a fever or been very ill, such disorienting shifts of scale and association occur frequently, and I’d imagine that as death approaches such spillovers become commonplace.

Sorensen: How closely did you work with writer/director Thai Joe (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) on the design? Do you find it more difficult to translate someone else’s artistic ideas/intentions and then make it into your own? And would this limit your own creative canvas or challenge it further?
Ware: He offered his gracious approval and thanks when it was done and only asked that the borders be changed, which made the image better, anyway. He also mentioned that he read my stories for years in the free weekly Chicago newspaper in which they appeared when he lived here — all of which was extremely kind of him, to say nothing of flattering.

Sorensen: We’re also big fans of your one-sheet for The Savages (view here). We were wondering if you employ a different process or if there are significant differences for you when you’re working on a magazine cover, book jacket and poster? Does the marketability factor play a larger or lesser importance depending on the format?
Ware: Well, the main difference is that with a poster, I’m drawing something for someone else, but with a strip or a New Yorker cover I’m working from my own ideas entirely. I wouldn’t consider the Savages poster or the Uncle Boonmee poster commercial art, exactly, since I really admire both directors and didn’t do either of the posters to pay my mortgage. I think of both projects more as a sort of a favor, or paying a compliment, or homage; I dunno. I’m sure I’m rationalizing somewhat here, though I wouldn’t ever do a poster for a film I thought was bad. I’m also a terrible illustrator, and in the case of the Savages poster, the film studio actually provided useful critical advice, and the director and producers were very generous, as well.

Sorensen: How would you describe your movie habits? We imagine you might be big on animation, but what are your taste buds for cinema like? Who/what are some of your faves?
Ware: Since my daughter was born, I see, probably one, maybe two, movies a year. As for home viewing, I rarely watch them, as well — maybe one every couple of months or so, though sometimes I’ll go on a kick with a particular director and watch a handful at a time. I’m not much of a fan of animation; old cartoons have a strangely soporific effect on me, maybe because I know how much work was involved in the drawing of them and it exhausts me. I usually fall asleep after about fifteen minutes or so.

I much prefer the directors who are actually supposed to be sleep-inducing, like Bergman, Ozu and Tarkovsky. I watch Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” probably once every couple of years or so, along with “Solaris” and “Tokyo Story,” the latter one being probably the most moving experiences I’ve ever had with art, aside from music. Edgar Reitz’s “Heimat” is another — that film has the texture and richness of literature and I don’t understand why it isn’t more widely appreciated. I love all of Todd Solondz’s films; situations and bits of dialogue from them float into my mind almost daily. I thought Charlie Kaufmann’s “Synecdoche, New York” was an unquestionable masterpiece — and Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s “Election” changed my thinking about writing and art. It also had a scene in it filmed outside the comic shop I used to visit with my grandmother when I was a kid.

Thai Joe’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is currently playing in NYC’s Film Forum and in L.A’s Laemmle’s Sunset 5.

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