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vol 8 - issue 02 (oct 2005) :: interviews
MATT MAHURIN
Interview by Night Watchman

MATT MAHURIN HAS DONE IT ALL, FROM LANDING TIME MAGAZINE COVER ILLUSTRATIONS RIGHT OUT OF SCHOOL, TO HIS MUSIC VIDEO WORK FOR BANDS LIKE METALLICA, U2, AND R.E.M. AND AS IF THAT WEREN'T ENOUGH, HE HAS NOW TURNED HIS ATTENTION ON FEATURE FILMMAKING. HIS LATEST, A DOCUMENTARY TITLED I LIKE KILLING FLIES, IS BEING RELEASED IN THEATERS THIS MONTH.

Night Watchman: I wanted to start out by asking you about your evolution. When you first started you were primarily a painter, and then you moved to photography. Can you talk a little bit about how you started out and what led to changing the way you approached illustration?

Matt Mahurin: Growing up, my first love was painting. What I really fell in love with was the actual process of making things, the discovery and the challenge of it. For me, it wasnít really a conscious decision. Itís not that Iíd conquered everything that I needed to do in painting, because you spend your whole life developing that. But the repetition of the process of laying out, doing the drawing, painting on top of it-- the same ritual. So basically I just changed the ritual. I changed the process, which involved the camera, involved the print. That was the first transition I made that later on became repeated several times. I went from illustration and using photography in illustration to just doing pure photography. The process changed from being alone in my studio working, to when I started doing photography it involved a lot of photojournalism or location stuff. All of the sudden I would find myself in a Texas prison or an abortion clinic or mental hospital or a different country, and you give up a lot of control with that. So thatís how my process changed once I got into photography. Then I was at the mercy of what was in front of the camera, and I had to adapt to that. When I was painting, the limitations were the limitations of my own abilities; my own imagination. There was a trade-off. Because once I went out into the world I was supplied with all this raw material that I could pull from, but I didnít have control over what was in front of my camera. I had to kind of pick and choose those moments. And then I ended up repeating that same process when the computer came along and I took that on. It started to involve painting and photography inside the computer, so it was combining three different things. I went from painting when I was by myself, to photography when I would go out and interact with the subject, and then the third area, which was doing filmmaking, where I actually had to have a crew. So then I not only had to deal with the additional energy and forced unknowns that were in front of the camera, but I also had to have more people behind the cameras. Then it became much more of a social environment, and I had to delegate and work with people, so the process kept growing and changing. This went on from the time I got out of school and started doing paintings alone in my studio, to when I was on a film set with thirty or forty people and all this equipment and money being spent. I had evolved from this place where I was by myself in a studio, to where I had a production company and full-time people working for me. I got to the point where I had to throw everything away. I got rid of my studio, I got rid of my company, I got rid of the person that worked for me, and I basically started from the ground up again. Filling out my own FedEx forms, taking my own darkroom towels to the laundromat, washing them myself rather than having people doing all that stuff for me. It was a way of reconnecting. The process had actually come full circle, so I had to relearn those skills all over again. It was challenging and frustrating, but it was also very exciting that I was capable of letting go of all that stuff that Iíd built up. So it really was about more of an attitude of process-- of changing processes as opposed to any particular medium.

[CONTINUED AFTER IMAGE]

NW: In the very beginning of your career you wore, like we all do, some of your inspirations on your sleeve. But it seemed like it was for such a short time that people couldn't pick out that Marshall Arisman or Brad Holland influence before you developed the heavy shadows and burned-in edges that became your trademark. Where did those elements come from? Was it a matter experimenting around until you found your own vocabulary?

MM: I think it was just a visual representation of where I was emotionally as an artist, and the emotions I wanted to express of the subject matter I was interested in. And that was the way I visually decided to do it. Also, I thought that was the way you could make things emotional or scary or unsettling. I got many, many illustrations over the years since then on the computer that are bright and colorful and focused that are just as scary or as emotional or moving as any dark, twisted, sandpaper-scored illustration I did in the past. But I think when youíre young like that you gravitate towards those kinds of emotional, moody tools. I wouldnít call them gimmicks, because those kinds of techniques have been used by people for as long as people have been making images. But I think that was stuff that I went to, and that was permissible in the business. It was a great time because anything went in illustration. It was great. I feel like I was right at the peak of that time to capitalize on that, utilize that, explore that, and benefit from that, and it really maximized my ability to express myself. When times changed and editors changed and the technology changed, newsstand sales changed, and the Internet came out and magazines started to struggle, so I was able to adapt. I love doing that kind of work, and I love that kind of imagery, but you take whatever your favorite meal is-- you have it one night and itís fantastic, so you have it two nights-- but after two weeks of your favorite food you get sick of it no matter how good it is. I think you just get bored with that particular thing, and I basically went through that process myself.

[CONTINUED AFTER IMAGE]

NW: I was trying to figure out when you started doing music videos. Were the Peter Gabriel videos some of the first?

MM: Yeah, those were very early.

NW: How did you first get involved in that, and how was it trying to translate your style into moving pictures?

MM: Again, I was anxious for the change-- anxious for the process and for the challenge and the technology. I went from using a paintbrush and a pencil to using this complicated camera, the darkroom and the enlarger. From that I went to a 35mm film camera, cranes and crews and Winnebagos and rooms full of computers to transfer the film-- and then you see your show on TV. I went from seeing it on the crit walls at school to seeing it on the cover of TIME Magazine, to MTV. The whole misconception is that you canít do personal work, moody work or emotional or self-driven work, and not make it be mainstream. When I first got out of school, and even when I was in school, in my first appointments everybody said, "Your work is too dark, too moody-- itís too personal, too obscure. Whoís going to hire you?" I did my first TIME cover when I was 23 years old, and Iíve done probably fifty of them since then. Obviously, it has to do with how hard I worked and that I had some ability, but it also had to do with the fact that I just didnít listen to anybody who told me I couldnít make it. And then I end up seeing these moody, dark, twisted videos on MTV. I mean, two of the most mainstream venues that you could see-- MTV and TIME Magazine-- so itís really possible. Thatís one of the things I always try to tell students or people that I see: donít listen to people when they tell you that, because if you have something to say and it means something and itís important, itíll get seen. Quality and hard work and being mindful and connecting to your world around you; whatís expected of you and whatís needed and what you can supply in terms of relationships to whatís needed in the world. Your stuff will get out there, and thatís been proven to me for almost twenty-five years now. When I got asked to do my first video, I donít know if I really even had MTV, and Iíd never used a film camera or anything. So I said, "As long as I can be behind the camera and I can shoot the camera, Iíll try it." I just went out and discovered a whole new, much more complicated, much more shared process. But I spent ten years working alone or being on location or getting on a plane with a camera and going somewhere with complete strangers, and then having to come back with the stuff. I could make friends and be out there and connect with these incredible musicians and really talented people, and understand why they became talented and why they were survivors. When you spend time with Metallica or U2 or Peter Gabriel, you understand why these people have twenty-year-long careers. Because theyíve dealt with their demons and their addictions, and theyíve grown and evolved and absorbed failure-- professional failure, personal failure-- and thatís inspirational. And then you get to become a collaborator with some of the great musical artists of the day. That was very exciting to try and match wits with these people. I found that to be really thrilling, but it also became torturous and horrible after (laughs) ten years. Just like illustration did, so it was time to jump ship. Thatís when I went off and made a movie [Mugshot]. Then after I made the movie, I chucked everything. Thatís when my whole life changed. I got married, I got sober, I got life insurance, I got a mortgage, I got car payments, and my life got better. Those things werenít even on my radar when I first started becoming an artist. I was just this wildly ambitious workaholic nutjob running around. But life changes, you know? I basically got rid of everything. I got rid of my penthouse apartment, I got rid of my studio in the Village. I went out and bought the house that my grandfather built on the beach, and just refocused my life. Iím 46 years old now, and I started from the bottom again. You let go of all those trappings, that accoutrement of success-- flying first class, dealing with all these rock stars, staying in cool hotels-- and then all the sudden youíre back filling out your own FedEx forms, balancing your own checkbook. But I realized the only door left for me to walk through had the word "asshole" written on it.

Both: (laugh)

MM: And I wasnít about to go through that, so I had to make some very important choices.

NW: You had to ground yourself again?

MM: Yeah.

[CONTINUED AFTER IMAGE]

NW: Iíve always been curious about Mugshot, the first movie you made, but Iíve never been able to see it. Is it similar in style to your music videos? Is it dark like that?

MM: It has darkness to it, but itís not... one of the reasons I made the movie was to try and tell a story, tell my own story, and also to learn filmmaking and make my mistakes and have control over that. So I did that, and then I went off and got married and rebalanced these other parts of my life, and I decided I wanted to make another movie. But what had happened was that I got sick of writing these scripts and showing them to people. I was really anxious to just get behind a camera. Since the time I got out of doing music videos the technology had changed, and people were telling me, "Oh, now you can make a movie on your computer. You donít need the processing lab or the 35mm $100,000 camera. You donít need a crew of people or all these post-production facilities. You can basically shoot something, transfer it to your computerís hard drive, and get a program to cut it right there. Output a movie." So I decided I was going to do that, and thatís how this documentary came about, I Like Killing Flies. Thatís what I really wanted to do; I wanted to return to working on my own and by myself. And I thought, "Boy, can I really apply this technology to make an entire feature-length film and shoot it and do the sound and edit it myself?" And I could, but what I had to do was strip away all those things that I have. No 35mm film camera. It was basically a little Sony DV [digital video] camera. It wasnít an army of people and a sound guy with a boom mike. It was basically me holding the microphone up so I could hear. With all those kinds of things I had to give up-- again, like giving up my studio, my apartment, my assistants, my company-- I also gave up all those other kind of stylistic elements that I had from music videos, and I returned to pure storytelling. Pure, simple, direct storytelling. Which is basically me and a camera and a subject. I went back and filmed this guyís life, this story, and I followed it as it unfolded. Then I went into the dark for months and cut this thing together, and I came out on the other end with a movie that was in Sundance and has played at the Museum of Modern Art. Itís going to be released in fifteen cities.

NW: Great! So it did get picked up?

MM: Yeah. It got picked up by this company called ThinkFilm, which did Born Into Brothels and Murderball. I just made this conscious decision that I wanted to get into the film world. I went off and wrote a script, and we just got the money for that. Itís under a million dollars, and itís going to be shot in October in New York. Iím kind of reconnecting to that social world. I retreated back into myself when I got married, got sober, got a house, and all that kind of stuff. I really was preparing myself for the next creative phase of my life. Iíd seen too many people burn themselves out and become workaholics; being discontent and making tons of money, but just being miserable. On paper or in a magazine it looked like everything was fine, but I couldnít keep it up in that way. I realized there were other things that were equally important, and some things were actually more important. Once I went back and retreated from that world there was no guarantee I was going to come back out and try and re-emerge, but thatís what I decided to do. And having the time to do that made me really clarify what it is that I wanted to approach next, which is that I wanted to tell these stories. I had this story in my life about this restaurant, and I believed in what this guy had to say. His philosophies about life and death and sex and politics and food really transcended the four walls of this little bohemian enclave in West Greenwich Village. I believed in that, like I believed in my dark, moody, weird stuff that I was doing when I was in school. I put the required amount of work and risk and anxiety and enjoyment into that process to create this thing, and it worked. That led to meeting other people. But it took a super-conscious, very awake moment to say, "Iím going to go back out into that world, and I know what itís going to take. Thereís no guarantee. I have to be prepared for the failure, but I also have to be more prepared for the success. If I fail, I just fall back into the same place I was with the same hole. But if not, that means Iím up in the light." I have to address that and see that through. Thatís what led to this film, and that led on to this other script that I decided to write, a script that was totally doable. I stuck it out with some people and found some people with money that really believe in it. So thatís the next step. Iím back in that same boat. Iím 46 years old, and I was 23 years old when I did my first TIME cover and moved to New York and kind of made it. So itís almost like my life is bisected by that moment. And now Iím kind of starting again after twenty-three more years to re-emerge doing these movies and getting my images out on a whole different scale.

[CONTINUED AFTER IMAGE]

NW: Wow, thatís really amazing. Youíve become extremely successful in everything that youíve done: illustration, photography, music videos. And youíre always willing to give that up to start again.

MM: But Iíve also become a has-been (laughs) and a burnout in every one of those fields, as well. Iíve failed in those fields and Iíve made mistakes. I tried not to stay any longer at the party than I was meant to be, and move on to the next party where I can make a fool out of myself all over again.

Both: (laugh)

MM: Make new friends-- whatever. I try to do that as much as I can, too.

NW: One last question, and I have to bring it up because itís always hard to find information on illustrators. The people that I have always been into and craving information about are these faceless illustrators that you canít find any interviews with, and you canít find anything else about them.

MM: (laughs)

NW: But when you look up "Matt Mahurin", especially on the Internet, most of what comes back is about the O.J. Simpson cover [for TIME Magazine].

MM: Oh, yeah. Well, I hope thatís not all you see.

NW: No, but there are so many articles examining it and about how people perceived it. And Iím not asking you to defend the piece because it doesnít need defended. I mean, the things that people bring up about the look of it was just you applying your regular style to this mugshot. I just wonder how does it feel to have your name associated with the controversy?

MM: Basically, my view on that is that all it did in the end was just reaffirm my belief in the power of images. When I did that image, the real tragedy was that if you looked at my cover which had this dark, moody image of O.J. Simpson on it, the headline on it was "An American Tragedy". If you look at the Newsweek cover, I mean, they ran that cover image straight, but the words say "A Trail Of Blood". So which one is more accusatory? By the combination of words and image, to me, "A Trail Of Blood" is much more accusatory. What I was doing was really about packaging, and I felt like this was a dark, moody subject. If you were doing Shakespeareís Hamlet in the darkest moment, when heís standing there with the skull, you wouldnít have spring blossoms blowing through the thing. Youíd have to address the scene visually in a way that suits it. What you said is really important, that really does go right along the lines of the way my other work was. I used the example where they had trading cards of O.J. Simpson where they took pictures of him on these dark, moody days where heís running through the snow. They print those things down. The photograph they took in the courtroom, where heís got the overhead fluorescent lighting and his head is kind of cocked to the side, itís the tragic fallen hero, and itís all dark and moody. Then youíve got other pictures, like the Newsweek one, and I think it was a new time. An image like that would never happen now because of the lessons that were learned from that. I know Iím not a racist, so it made you answer those questions about yourself and it makes you grow. What happened was, it educated TIME Magazine. The problem was that there wasnít a person in a position of power to make the decision that was central to that kind of an issue. If there was a... they donít even have to be black, but if there was a person of color or an enlightened white person in a position to know what could happen here, it wouldn't have happened. Someone to say, "Look, we know we're not racist or a racist organization, but what we need to see is that this could be misconstrued." I ended up doing this radio program... in fact, I remember once being on a plane going out to California, and this stewardess was taking care of me who was black. She was talking about what I did when I brought up the O.J. Simpson thing, and she goes, "Oh, let me tell you..." she was a very dark skinned black woman, and she goes, "...let me set one thing straight, the last thing I want to be is white. But when I was growing up in high school, all the light-skinned black guys-- and it didnít matter if they were the star athlete or whatever-- but they got the light-skinned black women and they got the white women. The darker your skin was, as a black woman, the less desirable you were to men." And I went on this radio program, and I went on not knowing the host was black or that this guy really kind of set me up, but he also enlightened me in a way. He said, "Matt, have you ever heard of a thing called 'color coding'?" I said, "No." And he said, "Well, back in the slave days, when they would get the slaves they would line them up from dark-skinned to light-skinned." Basically, the darker your skin was, the more you were perceived as an animal, and therefore you were considered more dangerous. You were thought to have more brute strength, to be more simpler in the mind, so you were put out to do the mindless tasks, like working out in the field. The lighter your skin was, the more you looked like a white person, so you got to work inside the plantation and be around the people. And since you had to wait on these people and be in their proximity, you got to bathe and wear clean clothes because these people didnít want to be around stinky, sweaty people. And so within the black culture racism existed. So there was racism within racism. And so what I surmised from this, what I gathered from this, by me doing this cover-- I didnít tap into racism necessarily between whites and blacks. Iím sure that also happened, but it also happened within their own culture, and I brought up those kinds of things. I mean, I had everyone from Jesse Jackson to whoever calling me a racist and all that kind of stuff. What I did is I saw people take this image and this mistake or whatever, this misjudgment, and everybody cultivated it and twisted it to motivate their own cause. Newsweek used it, as well: "Oh, TIME Magazine is down! Letís kick them!" The first guy that called me to get me about this wrote this big article in The Washington Post, which is owned by the same company that owns Newsweek, so itís all interconnected. Everybody uses it to suit their own needs. More power to them. But in the end, it totally made me think that a picture is worth a thousand words. Nobody remembers the words that were on there and they were much more slanderous, much more accusatory. But people do remember the image. In the end, the way I sum it up is, I wouldnít have wished this on anybody, what I went through. But I wouldnít have traded it for anything, either. So you get both of those sides. Thatís what happens when you put yourself out there and you risk things. Thatís the price you pay, and it has come back to me in many ways. Ten times, a hundred times, countless times over Iíve been rewarded for the chances Iíve taken and for my feelings or point of view or my ideas about things that Iíve put on the line. You have to stand by everything you do.

[CONTINUED AFTER IMAGE]

NW: It always boggled my mind that it was taken so out of context. All that anyone would have had to do is hold up two other pieces of your artwork next to it, and itís so obvious thatís your style. That just drove me insane.

MM: As time moves on we go through things that will fade, and people become more sensitive and more conscious of it. And just like everything else, that will fade away and become just another little lesson that was learned along the way. For me personally, itís just one thing that I did that was really fascinating. But itís not who I am.


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