Artist & Filmmaker
WORDS BY : RANA TOOFANIAN | IMAGES BY : ANTHONY CABAERO
“It’s not about faking it until you make it, it’s making it until you make it.”
“I was always really inspired by movies – I wanted to be part of this grand spectacle,” says artist and filmmaker, Van Alpert, whose body of work encompasses large scale portraiture, murals, and mechanical installations alongside film & photography. Alpert, who spent his formative years in Miami doing graffiti, moved to Los Angeles to break into film. Whilst paying his dues taking on a number of crew jobs, he also set to work developing his signature style of iconography – hand-inked drawings and artworks of his Hollywood idols: “Not unlike a lot of other people who paint or make films based on a life they wished they had – for me, those works are a way to somehow find a place in all of it, to associate with people I wish I’d known or could be.” Unifying ambitious visuals with a fearless multiplicity of styles and guerilla techniques, his films are surreal and poetic meditations on society and culture – fused with an intense dream-like quality that blurs the line between fiction and documentary. Today, having cut his teeth collaborating with brands including Red Bull, BabyGhost, Nike and Beats by Dre on videos and documentaries, Alpert is a distinctive new voice in filmmaking.
You work across different mediums – from graffiti and painting to photography and moving image. How do your different practices feed into each other and to the overall body of work?
Growing up I loved doing graffiti, it was part of my upbringing – the people I was raised around and what was going on in my life. Graffiti would put me out on the streets in the middle of the night and into really tricky situations. If we went out bombing that night, it would be seen by everyone on the way to school the next morning and I always found that the tension and immediacy of those situations brought really big results. I feel like if I were to leave out graffiti from my work, to not include that in my life anymore, my filmmaking would somehow not have the same sort of intensity.
Painting, for example, is typically a solitary act whereas filmmaking is almost always a collaborative endeavour. Is the artwork reserved more as a space for personal expression, somewhere you can exercise more control?
With painting – the actual act of painting ends up being very solitary. I’m completely by myself, with headphones on, focusing on technique – trying to nail a perfect line or not make any mistakes while I’m working. But a lot of my artwork or shows end up being a big collaborative effort. I work with craftsmen who help produce my sculptures – there are ones that are welded out of steel with LED lights in them that weigh about 40-50 pounds a piece – it’s takes at least 5 or 6 of us to hang that on a wall. And, everything that’s involved in orchestrating a show – the partnership between producers, fabricators and technicians – feels reminiscent of making a film.
A thread within all your work and most obvious in your iconography is identity. You’ve developed several series of portraits of Hollywood icons like John Wayne and Lauren Bacall – what are the impulses behind selecting those subjects?
That’s something I’ve sort of had to figure that out myself too – because even I would sit there and be like, “Why did I decide to paint Lauren Bacall?” Moving out here to LA, and wanting to be part of the film industry, I was going to all these memorabilia stores that had headshots of old Hollywood actors, to buy books and anything that had to do with subjects that were part of that world. And perhaps that’s how it started, by drawing or painting those things – not unlike a lot of other people who paint or make films based on a life they wished they had – that was a way to somehow find a place in all of it, to associate with people I wish I’d known or could be.
Once you commit to a subject, you end up creating a considerable number of pieces – portraits, illustrations, sculptures. Is there a point where it starts to feel habitual and you get bored?
Yes! And I think that is what is freeing about working across mediums; when I’ve been drawing so much my hand hurts- I can jump into that other world of creating film and start playing around with camera or making something on my computer. When I get tired of that- I get bored easily, I really have no patience- then I can go back into my little world and have time on my own again.
You’ve shot a series of videos for the New York/Shanghai based brand, BABYGHOST – most recently, a film called 1001 Nights shot in China with Xiao Wen Ju. How did the collaboration with BABYGHOST start?
Initially, Josh [Huppert] from BABYGHOST, found one of my videos online and contacted me to shoot a video. Since then, we’ve worked on several projects together. The nature of all those videos have really been based on what I wanted to do as a filmmaker. Josh would say, “What are you really into right now? What do you want to do” and I would respond, “I really want to make a movie” and he would say, “Ok, well make a movie!”. Then I would end up pretty much making a 3 minute trailer or proof of concept to a movie because that’s as much time or money as we had. I do the best I can to try get to where I want to be. It’s not necessarily faking it until you make it, it’s making it until you make it.
1001 Nights is a strong example of some of your stylistic preferences – multiple formats and shifting perspectives – and also voiceovers that you source, distort and layer into the narratives.
I’m working with what I have. With the internet and YouTube, there are just billions of clips available, and I feel like so many of them are stuck in limbo in the internet world. Like a DJ or music producer digging through crates of records – I’m finding clips on the internet, pulling sounds and voices, remixing them, pairing them and applying them to images that could turn them into something else, give them a second life. Whether it’s Will Smith, Richard Nixon or some total stranger, I cut them up to work in new ways and they become my own. I have full range. I’m giving myself the green light. Sometimes the best work that you make as a creative is limited by the tools you have. Sometimes I’m just left with the internet, a laptop and my iPhone. I might see a guy losing his mind on the side of the street, film it on my cell and then bring it back to studio to create something new. At that point, I can’t go hire an actor to try recreate it but I can start playing with ways to elevate the clip, applying sounds or distorting it to make it my own. I’ve always been really inspired by Andy Warhol, we have the same birthday but I don’t have an Andy Warhol factory. Elizabeth Taylor is not going to come over for dinner tonight so I can’t shoot her headshot and print it on a canvas. What I do have is the internet. I can find an Elizabeth Taylor headshot that hasn’t been used before. It’s just sitting there. She’s not around anymore and I’m here. At a certain point, I feel like i’m going to get into trouble for it. The police are going to knock at my door. It’s sort of a running theme for all the shit that I do.
That feels very free. From a creative point of view, filmmaking can be quite paralyzing given the need for budgets and financing.
When big money is introduced into a project, sometimes you see how fast everyone in the crew starts to change. It can make me feel disconnected. A lot of the best magic comes out of just trying to make something guerilla style, when you’re simply just out to make something rad. Once everyone is paid their full rate, or what they feel they deserve, when they can stop showing up; you know the magic isn’t going to be there that day. LA is the one place where, if you don’t have any money, there’s no excuse. Sure, if you don’t have a computer, phone or internet, you really are limited but otherwise you can be out there shooting, sharpening your sword. I’m remaking Taxi Driver, on my own, shot on my iPhone. There’s this whole stigma around making a movie, people are so worried about what their first movie is going to be. I’m just saying “Fuck it”, and making something on my phone.
So, you’re not afraid of making mistakes?
Right. I like mistakes, I like the combination of things that are out of focus with things that are in focus, because that’s real. On my own projects everyone will shoot. What I can’t stand is people not working, we’re all here to do something. If you really want to be in the movie business, take out your fucking phone and start shooting. If you’re allowed to do it, do it. That’s my outlook. When I first started out, I was always getting in trouble for taking out my personal camera on big commercials. They were like, “What are you doing, dude?” I would say, “This looks rad, bro. I really like this.” It’s like the Japanese tourist theory. You just shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, until they tell you to stop, and then, you’re like, “Cool. I already got the shot.”