Even as I write this I'm a bit confused. I always thought of myself as a rebel -- somebody cognizant of the rules but defiant toward them. The fact that I chose to take the painfully insecure leap into filmmaking is testament to that. I was raised in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a small working-class community who have far more appreciation for municipal labor and soccer practice than taxidermy or abstract film; a practicality I have on and off respect for. I have no formal training and like everything else that I enjoy and take seriously, I made my own rules and taught myself (for better or for worse).
My current project is a sort of abstract bio-doc on a quirky Victorian taxidermist named Walter Potter. In short, Potter popularized this idea of putting taxidermied (dead) animals in human poses ("The Rabbit Schoolhouse", "The Kittens' Wedding"). He had a small but popular museum in Sussex, England that moved to different locations and was visited by millions for nearly 150 years, and his modest work became the standard for these Victorian whimsical anthropomorphic tableaux. His work speaks as the perfect example of the both the Victorian fascination with death as well as their sense of playfulness and creativity.
In 2003, almost exactly ten years ago, the contents of his museum were sold at auction and scattered across the globe, much to the dismay of his dedicated followers and enthusiasts. My friend and series collaborator Joanna Ebenstein, founder of Morbid Anatomy, has been in England working with taxidermy, zoology and Potter expert Dr Pat Morris on a book called Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy which has just been published and which preserves the museum's collection, at least in a 2D form between the pages of this new book.
Knowing that one of my odd professional distinctions is making book trailers she asked if we might do a film trailer for the upcoming release of the book. Eager to complicate things, I suggested we be a bit more decadent and see just how far we could take the project. To my surprise, we raised a decent amount of money via Kickstarter as well as funds from the independent publisher Constable & Robinson and so it was off to England. And then I panicked. Who the fuck is Walter potter, I asked myself? The film would no doubt be visually rich as his tableaux are vibrantly detailed, but film is about telling a story. I knew as much about Potter's "story" as I did about filmmaking! And to make things even more intense, people became very interested in the project. For once in my struggling 12-year career I had eyes on my work and I (assume I) have no idea what I am doing.
So I decided to start with the basics of Potter's life. But the basics always seem boring me. I'd hate to be the filmmaker who couldn't even make an interesting film about a guy who taxidermied 8-legged kittens! But of course -- as all stories tend to do -- it started to tell itself to me through a menagerie of amazing personalities. It was reported that the contemporary British artist Damien Hirst offered 1 million quid at the auction to save the collection and display it in its entirety, but to no avail. Well then, I suppose we should get Damien Hirst on camera talking about that... Right? Sure. If we could. Hirst would certainly bring a bit of star quality to this project. That proved impossible, but oddly I was almost more interested in Potters enthusiast in the 'real world'. Ben Hard, an auto-specialist in Cornwall has a very large collection of Potter's work (almost his own little mini-museum) as well as other amazing and obscure artifacts and curiosities, is one of those enthusiasts. Errol Fuller, a writer and artist from Tunbridge Wells in Kent, was another must-have on camera. He not only had a house littered with some of the most impressive taxidermy I had seen, including an elephant's head and a full-sized lion but he also owned the only mechanical piece of Potter's work, "The Athletic Toads", which lent valuable movement to my trailer. The 'story' that was coming together was becoming pretty clear to me.
Walter Potter -- the man whose collection the high-profile artist Damien Hirst allegedly fought and failed to save -- was an average, humble country taxidermist of questionable talent. And yet his work has stood the test of time and for millions of people has meant something far beyond the original intention. Potter just did the thing he liked doing. No footnote... No social subtext... No deep artistic meaning. No rebellion. Potter was beginning to speak to me... I began seeing a direct parallel between Potter and myself. In a way, I feel like Potter would be uninterested in a film about Walter Potter, but very interested in a film about the works of Walter Potter, and the people who have inherited his legacy. I'd said earlier how I'd always seen myself as rebellious and defiant toward the rules. Potter, however, offers me an alternative, and more productive viewpoint. For better or for worse we live in a world of commercialism and big industry and even the greatest artists need to conform to a certain standard to reach the general public. But doing something despite rather than IN spite of that fact give a much more pure and interesting final product... Certainly in the case of Walter Potter. Hopefully in the case of our film.
Here is a link to the first trailer for the book and movie.