When filmmaker Neil Berkeley was a college intern and first met Wayne White twelve years ago, he was already familiar with the artist's work. Certainly, you are too.
White is best known as a designer for the landmark TV show Pee-wee's Playhouse, where he created, and even voiced, some of the puppets on the series. He art directed memorable music videos like “Big Time” for Peter Gabriel and “Tonight Tonight” for the Smashing Pumpkins. A multi-disciplinary artist with a penchant for humor and whimsy, his work has popped up in numerous TV shows and commercials over the years. These days, it's his paintings, which feature slogans painted in large, three-dimensional letters over thrift store prints of landscapes, that take center-stage.
It's White's varied career that Berkeley intended to highlight when he began documenting the artist's life back in 2009. Three hundred hours of footage later, Beauty Is Embarrassing, Berkeley's first film, became much more than that.
Berkeley says that designer Todd Oldham, who edited White's monograph, Maybe Now I'll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve, told told him at the start of the project, “You have no idea how many layers you're about to peel back.” He was right. Beauty Is Embarrassing isn't just a career retrospective. It's not just a touching story about a young artist's journey from Chattanooga to Hollywood. It's an artist's manifesto, a call-to-arms for fellow creative people to explore every discipline that interests them with humor and passion.
Beauty Is Embarrassing trailer
Early on in Beauty Is Embarrassing, White speaks out against the common advice that he should pick one field and stick with it. Throughout the film, we see him do the opposite, delving into everything from puppetry to painting to his one-man stage shows. In our recent phone interview, White explained that he believes intense focus in one discipline is something we pick up in school and often don't abandon after we leave. “That's a pattern of behavior that I encourage people to question,” he says.
“I think that if you have the passion and drive to do many things, then do it. At least, try it for a while,” White continues. “The truly creative mind should explore.”
Beyond that, White discusses in the documentary how important humor is to his art. “I knew he was a funny guy, but I didn't know how much of a mission that was for him,” says Berkeley over the phone. White's offbeat sense of humor is on display throughout the documentary.
“I kind of enjoy having an audience and being funny for that audience, even if it was just one or two filmmakers,” says White.
For White, though, opening himself up for the camera wasn't immediately easy. “I've been interviewed several times before, but no one had ever followed me around like that,” he says. “At first, I was a little wary of it, I felt a little vulnerable.”
As the filming continued, White was able to open up to Berkeley. “As time went by, though, I got to know Neil a little better and I trusted him and respected him as an artist,” he recalls. “Plus, the technology of cameras and sound equipment now is so tiny that it was really unobtrusive. After a while, I forgot all about the camera being there.”
Beauty Is Embarrassing has been making the film festival rounds this year and opens in L.A. tonight. Screenings at West Hollywood's Sundance Cinema Sunset will feature introductions and Q/A sessions with various people involved in the film, including White's wife, writer/cartoonist Mimi Pond, and producer Morgan Neville tonight and White and Berkeley on Saturday and Sunday.