“A hair brained idea” Brad Bernstein On Making Far Out Isn’t Far Enough

In recent years a lot of artists, curators and filmmakers have been making efforts to redress the curious lack of exposure Tomi has had in the United States since his self imposed exile from the land of opportunity in the early 1970s. Earlier this month we shared an essay by Claire Gilman, curator of the Drawing Center in New York, about Tomi’s relationship with the American art world. This week we talked to a man responsible for bringing Tomi’s work to a whole new audience, Brad Bernstein, director of the acclaimed documentary Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story.

Tomi Ungerer kisses director Brad Bernstein at a screening of Far Out Isn't Far Enough

Tomi Ungerer kisses director Brad Bernstein at a screening of Far Out Isn’t Far Enough

Far Out Isn’t Far Enough was released by Corner of the Cave Media in 2012. Parts were filmed in New York, Ireland, Alsace, Nova Scotia, and other places where Tomi has left his trace, and the crew interviewed everyone from fellow authors to family members to create a cohesive portrait of the man and his art. The film presents a wide cross section of Tomi’s artwork, everything from his childhood drawings to his anti-Vietnam War posters are brought to life on screen through animation. Far Out was Brad Bernstein’s directorial debut and it has won him numerous honours at film festivals worldwide. So, what made the director want to make a film about Tomi in the first place?

Brad Bernstein: Back in late 2008 I was flipping through The New York Times and there, on the front cover of the Arts section, was an article about a long lost artist and children’s book author who was being brought back to life by an American publisher. I was from New York but had never heard of this man who seemingly left such an impressionable mark on so many people, and on so many levels. That said, the more research I did the more I realized that I had actually known of his work—I’d seen the imagery he created. So it was both a feeling of discovering a part of my past and also being newly exposed to a fascinating man, and his even more fascinating story. So I hand wrote him a letter addressed to his museum in France with some hair-brained idea to make a documentary about his life. And sure enough, about a month later, I received a letter back.

What did the letter say?

Oh man, [Tomi’s] response was more than I could have hoped for! It basically was like, “come to France now before I die. And I’m dying, so let’s go!” Incidentally, that was practically the same exact response I got from Maurice Sendak when I eventually reached out to him to participate in my film. So ironically those two great men – although they hadn’t seen each other in over thirty years at that point – had very similar responses.

Anyway, the first meeting was in Tomi’s flat in Strasbourg and it was really a getting to know you session. Here was a man forty years my senior and he wanted to find out if I could connect with him on any level. But I think after an evening of wine, cigarettes and laughter, he trusted me and my team enough to come back the next day and begin shooting. Actually, I think it was the moment he told me I was “his favourite Jew” that solidified in my mind that I had made the right decision on an interview subject.

What was it like working with Tomi during shooting? You included some outtakes from the interviews in the final film, where his mood had changed or he had become uncomfortable.

We sure did, and I’m happy we did include those scenes. As anyone who has met Tomi will attest, he’s both charming as hell and full of anxiety. He can be a pleasure to work with, and also very challenging. And Tomi himself is the first one to say that his anxiety and his demons can get the best of him. So I don’t think our film would have been as full a portrait of him as a man without showing those moments where terror truly overtook him, and where it made it a challenge to work with him. But that challenge is what makes him unique and why we rolled on those moments—to let people see all sides of this guy. 

Brad Bernstein with Tomi Ungerer

Brad and Tomi

Is there anything that surprised you about Tomi, the more you learned about him? For example, a lot of people are surprised when they learn how much mainstream acceptance means to him, even though he is so subversive.

I think he’s just inherently subversive due to his childhood experience with fascism and Nazism. And I think he’s equally as anxiety ridden due to being scarred by his experience with his mother and the premature death of his father. So, at least for me, I’m not very surprised that Tomi yearns for approval, and frets over being accepted by those around him and by the public at large. That said, you’d think after 80+ years on this planet and with all the success he’s achieved that that need to be accepted would have waned slightly. The surprising part is that it may have increased- he’s as uncertain as ever!

His work spans such a diverse range. Are there any areas of it that you felt, or still feel, are particularly underrepresented or misrepresented in the public eye?

Oh yeah, for sure. I remember when we were in the middle of shooting he was working on creating a variety of tapestries. And he was fairly deep into a multi-part autobiography if memory serves me right. So I think capturing some of his other eclectic interests in art and also his writing – he’s a pretty wonderful writer – would have been nice. But there’s only so much time in a 90-minute documentary and also only so much money for shooting days. So we limited it to what’s in the film and a few more scenes that found the cutting room floor.

How did some of the “talking heads” react when you approached them for interviews? Did they remember Tomi and the New York scene right away? I’m super jealous that you got to meet Maurice Sendak!

Oh, everyone pretty much to a man was amenable to an interview- and even looked forward to it. Even Philip Roth, who is a notorious reclusive, responded to me right away and said he remembers Tomi well and wished him luck, but refused to participate. He was the only person who passed, which wasn’t very surprising. 

The crew with Maurice Sendak

But securing Maurice Sendak was certainly special and a story I always tell. I mean, going to Maurice’s house in Connecticut and just seeing what was on the walls – and on his shelves – was like seeing an adult who never quite grew out of childhood. Again, if my memory is remembering correctly, he had an infatuation with Disney that manifested itself in having figurines and dolls everywhere in the house. I mean classic toys and art, all Disney-related.

Far Out… took four years to make, are there any particular moments during the making of the film that stand out in your memory?

When I’m asked about stories from set my mind goes back to the day Rick (co-producer and editor) and I drove across France from Paris to see Tomi and his family, and to present the film to them for the first time. They hadn’t seen a frame of anything up until that point. And Rick and I were terrified: Tomi is so particular about all aspects of his art—from the way colours are reproduced, to the way he constructed certain lines and angles—and here we were animating his artwork and therefore completely altering lines, and at times colours! So anyway, we hit play on the DVD and within two minutes Tomi was crying and squeezing my hand with such firmness that I knew in that moment that this man, at the very least, felt we were true to the one thing he’s been passionate about since he was a child: his art. That was pretty gratifying for me.

Interview by Sophie Meehan. 

You can buy Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story on iTunes here 

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