Iker Gil and Julie Michiels in conversation with Dan Rybicky
Almost There, an award-winning documentary codirected by filmmakers Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden, follows “outsider artist” Peter Anton for almost a decade.
The film focuses on Peter’s art and life, one that hides more than we initially anticipate when we first meet him painting people’s portraits at the Pierogi Fest in Whiting, Indiana. Living in the basement of the dilapidated house he grew up in, he spends his time secluded from the outside world, only accompanied by his scrapbooks, paintings, and cats. But we later learn that it is what he hides from his past that keeps him in that basement. A revelation that deeply affects Peter’s life as well as the filmmakers’ who, from that point on, are forced to confront the unpleasant discovery and its consequences.
Iker Gil and Julie Michiels talk to Dan Rybicky, codirector and producer of the film, about the genesis of the documentary, his complicated relationship with Peter, exposing the vulnerabilities filmmakers have, and what makes Almost There a film that people can relate to.
IG: How did the collaboration between you and your codirector, Aaron Wickenden, start?
DR: It started with us meeting in Chicago when we both moved here around 2002. It was through a mutual friend who had helped start a magazine called Found Magazine, which is still in existence. It’s a whole compilation magazine of found items: people getting and finding things, notes on cars, letters that weren’t supposed to reach them . . . it’s hilarious.
We actually met at an exhibit that I was part of called Really Real, which was an exhibit in which there were performance objects that were real and some that were there that were artificial but looked real. I think he was interning at WBEZ at the time. I had just moved from Los Angeles. I was writing a screenplay for people out there but I wanted to live in Chicago.
JM: How did you and Aaron meet Peter?
DR: At the time that we met Peter in 2006, Aaron and I had already been friends for a few years. We went out to Pierogi Fest in Whiting, Indiana, to see the world’s largest pierogi, which was being unveiled that day for the Guinness Book of World Records. A friend had told us about it and I think it was also one of Oprah’s top five food festivals in the country. Anyway, we biked there and we saw the pierogi, which was so disgusting and unbelievable. I don’t even know if it was edible. It weighed over 100 pounds.
After seeing the pierogi we met Peter. He was at this rickety table doing pastel portraits of kids, telling corny jokes. He just had an energy about him that was vibrating with something that was compelling. Maybe in the spirit of the sad clown, like that song, “Smile When Your Heart is Breaking,” or whatever it is. He was being very jokey and funny but was dressed as a dandy of a sort. He had a bowtie and he wanted to look pretty good but he was a wreck, this total disheveled dandy. Then he pulled two scrapbooks from under his table. We saw the texture, the illustrations, this quality of something that was vibrating off those books. This idea of autobiographizing your life through art, which is what these books were, was like an obsession. I’m interested in obsession. So we took some photos, he asked for our information, and he probably sent us a letter or two.
We knew about outsider art. I’d been to exhibits at Intuit and that work has always compelled me. Work that people working outside of the commercial or cultural mainstream are compelled to produce. I’m just interested in art as an expression, as a pure expression, more so when people aren’t even thinking about it in a commodity way, which is definitely the case with someone like Peter.
IG: When you went to Pierogi Fest, were you already looking for characters for your documentary?
DR: No, we weren’t. We went back to Pierogi Fest a couple of years later. We brought some photos of what we had taken and we saw Peter there again. Every now and then we would send a letter back and forth. He was encouraging us to come to his house but we didn’t go because we were busy. But there was a moment where we just said, “He has done thirteen of these scrapbooks, let’s go.”
His house was impossible to find, we got lost trying to find it in Whiting. We finally got there and it was intense. Aaron grew up in an environment where it was spotless. In the film you saw me pointing to the mold in my mother’s ceiling but Aaron was the opposite of me. I think on that day Aaron could not even go within thirty feet of the house, the smell was too intense. I am someone who just goes. I think I walked into the foyer and into this black hole where Peter was going down. I just took a few snaps in the house that day with a flash because it was all so dark and intense. We also took some pictures just in the yard.
I remember going home that night and just looking at them. They were so intense. It is like that phrase that you cannot “unsee” what you’ve seen. One of the photographers that filmmaker Brian Ashby alerted us to, Zoe Strauss, who did this amazing book called “America,” had this weird photograph of a storage space with this big banner on it that says, “If you break the skin, you must come in.” We always said that to ourselves. Once we saw this, it really was hard to just forget about it. That maybe says something more about who I am as well. When I was in Los Angeles I had a business card that just said my name and then, in italics, human being. That is really the truth. I am just drawn to whatever it is. There is something that drew me to it, to the work, to the art, to this guy.
Then, as the film details, we did try to help him like anyone, I think, does. We didn’t want to get too close too fast or anything, but we were determined to go in there. It was a curious thing. It was like, “Don’t go in the basement but go in the basement.”
As documentary people, we were also interested what the context is of how people make art and where they make art. We have always been interested in the juxtaposition of this work going up on white walls and how, particularly in this field, you keep the artist. Do you keep the artist out of the gallery? What is their life really like? I’m interested in what motivates people to make art, much more than the art itself.
JM: You mentioned that Almost There didn’t start as a documentary. You took photos for quite a while. What made you change that idea?
DR: By 2008, after having taken many photos, we thought that we wanted to contextualize this, maybe as an art show. We shared Peter’s art with Intuit [The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago] as we knew people there. We brought in some scrapbooks and they were interested. We kept taking photos and, in the summer of 2008, we went to Review Santa Fe, which is a photography festival in New Mexico. We showed a series of photographs that we had fancily printed up to someone from Princeton Architectural Press who, I think, was the first person we had a meeting with. She burst into tears when she saw our twenty, really well done photos, and she said, “Let’s do a book.” We started to take more photos and work on a book with Princeton Architectural Press. Unfortunately, this took place around the economic collapse and the book was never published.
With the same DSLRs that we were shooting with we started to do video clips that we thought we would include in the 2010 exhibition at Intuit. It became natural for us to start using the camera to film with him and we did a series of interviews. The first thing we did was just a series of sit-down extensive interviews with him for two or three days trying to get a history of his life. Then we started to try to sift through all of the books and the hundreds of pages of him writing about his life for the exhibit. We put them on iPads mounted on the wall so people could hear from him and have further context. The whole idea of the show was that it was Peter telling the story of his life. It was almost a narrative within the room. We had him literally create panels. Written things that we put in frames on each wall that took us through epochs of his life. He literally named each wall and then wrote about that era of his life.
We filmed the opening of the exhibit. I think that maybe it was around that time that we thought maybe we’ll do a film that is just telling the story of Peter getting his exhibit. It could travel with the exhibit or something like that. We didn’t know that things would take such an intense turn. The goal really was to tell Peter’s story, to help him tell his story, his last life’s wish, through an exhibit, maybe through the film.
And then the stuff happened [we will not discuss the actual event so we don’t reveal a significant moment of the documentary].
It became natural to have our cameras with us. We met him in 2006, and this happened in 2010. We went to his house with the cameras. We didn’t know what it would be but we knew that it was creating a big row at Intuit with their board members. A big row that they had never had in their entire existence. It was the first time that their entire organization had ever actually started to grapple with the very issues that exist and are loaded all around the art that they are studying.
IG: In a way it uncovered those hidden aspects that are part of some of the lives of the outsiders.
DR: There are people who think you can separate the art from the artist. That is one of the hypocrisies of the art world: that the work needs to stand on its own. Especially in the fancier galleries, gallerists don’t necessarily give you huge backgrounds on the work. The work should be separated from the artist, so they say. I think it is a hypocrisy. Even Banksy has a story of a sort that is attached to his art.
We were also not art curators. When the exhibition went up, there were people who were horrified and outraged by what we had done. Literally the night before the show started, while we were not there and they were still putting up the show, the head curator of Intuit called everyone in and said, “Look at this disgusting show. It makes me sick, it looks like a high school art project collage nightmare.” We didn’t even find this out until later. She totally trashed us to the entire group. She agreed to be interviewed as we went forward, so she was a good enough sport to agree, but she hated it, hated what we were doing. What we were doing was radical and not appropriate, but it also drew huge crowds to them because we were calling attention to the very thing that is always kept tamped down. Peter’s art was autobiographical so it made sense for us to contextualize it. It wasn’t like his art was visionary or about some fantasy world. This was about him so we wanted to play that up.
That’s when we filmed all that stuff because we said, “If there’s a whole organization here that’s grappling with this, they’re about to shut a show down, let’s just keep filming.” How can you stop after all those years? Then Peter’s house was condemned. It just becomes “what’s going to happen?” There’s got to be an ending here somewhere. Our lives went on. I’m a full-time teacher at Columbia College and Aaron was becoming one of the most sought-after editors working in documentary, having just edited “Finding Vivian Maier” and “Best of Enemies.”
Aaron was editing, I was teaching, and we did pull back more after the whole thing. That was probably during the time when I did really question why we were doing the project, and that’s where the inclusion of my family started to come into it.
JM: It is evident throughout the film that you become close to Peter and that there is a personal investment in him. And then, at one point in the documentary, you also begin to reflect back on your own life and family. When did that connection between what you were seeing as the subject of the documentary and your relationship with your own family happen?
DR: It was definitely during that time when all this stuff blew up and our friends, more than ever, were like, “Why are you still doing this project? This guy is not grateful for anything you’ve really done. He has evaded questions and your names are associated with a project, which now might be shut down. Everyone thinks he’s creepy. Why are you doing this? When is this going to stop?”
I have worked in offices where I’ve really recreated my dysfunctional family because I am still living out haunts and hurts and unresolved issues. I have manifested and made them come right back to me in my present life with other people. In some ways, it didn’t take so long for me to look and see that this was probably the biggest one and it was right in front of my face. It only took a moment like this for me to really explore and see how I was doing this with Peter. That I could never solve the sadness of my family, my own mother and brothers’ twisted and dysfunctional relationship. Here I was, in some ways, trying to help this person who is, in a way, the ghost of my brothers’ Christmas future. I think that that happens a lot where we’re trying to do something in our present because we haven’t solved it in the past, and we may never. That’s what I think one of the motivators of life is in a way.
I conceptually have always said that, I think more than ever now in our culture, we’re wary of the God eye, particularly in film. I’m always interested in why someone is filming something; for example, who are these three white filmmakers filming in Uganda? I want to see them back in their condo ordering something from Room & Board. I want to see full context. I want all the veils to be pulled back. I believe that the films that some of these filmmakers are making in front of their camera are much less interesting than the stories of what they are leaving out between the dynamics that they are in with their subjects.
One of the things that has happened in our film is that many documentary filmmakers have come to us and said, “I can’t believe you put these things in your film.” I think a lot of people have these really interesting negotiations with their subjects and the fluidity of a documentary filmmaker’s role, when it tips over into an advocate or a caretaker. It’s not an easy exchange, it’s not monetary, but there is something exchanged. Like Peter says in the film, “You’re serving me, I’m serving you, we’re serving each other.”
Conceptually I have always felt like I will never ask a question of the subject that I myself wouldn’t answer. I wanted to have the veils lifted back on what vulnerabilities filmmakers have and how this is a deeper thing than what you might think. That’s why these filmmakers devote years to projects like this that are barely funded.
IG: I: I think bringing you as another character into the movie helps to navigate that fine line. Some people might perceive that you are exploiting Peter to make your own film. The moment that you expose your life the same way that you are asking Peter to expose his, it becomes clear that now it is an even trade, now you both have the same skin in the game.
DR: One of the people at Kartemquin who is a huge friend and has been an incredible mentor in our project is Steve James. After Hoop Dreams, Steve made the last film that everyone wanted him to make. Everyone wanted him to make Hoop Dreams 2. Instead, he spent eight years making a film called, Stevie. Stevie is a very powerful film and one that he was both loved for and hated for. It was about him going to Southern Illinois to reconnect with Stevie Fielding, for whom Steve once served as an advocate Big Brother. In the film Steve gets a call from Stevie saying that he’s in jail for a serious crime and to see if Steve can post bail. The can of worms opens because this guy really did commit this crime. It is an amazing, complicated, and difficult film. So Steve really helped us navigate some of these very ethically complicated issues, as did our executive producer Gordon Quinn. We had an incredible team of people who have been doing this for decades who helped us navigate these issues.
But going back to your comment, your point is well taken. We had seven feedback screenings over a year, and there were some early on in which people were attacking me for yelling at Peter at the end of it. People only see what’s on screen for those ten minutes and don’t see the amount of hours we spent with Peter. After this event, we started to think about how to put me in the film and, over the course of those seven screenings, we realized we had to put my story in before the showdown with Peter and that is what I believe was the final piece in the puzzle that made us land the middle of the film. Like you said, you see me as a character and, by the time that I am confronting him and get feisty with him, you can see what my investment is as a character.
Yet a film like this is not easy. It is a film that is traversing very complicated ethical issues. We just got on to Amazon Prime. Ten years later, many zillions of hours later, and the first review is by “Margot Sexiest Goddess Ever” whose first line is, “The directors did a great job of convincing me they’re total scumbags.” First line.
IG: You should put that in your reviews. [laughs]
DR: It’s so great. Even trying to deal with these things is going to rile people up. Like I said, I think even the fact that I don’t pity this person is controversial. Most people can pity a person like Peter. That makes it so much easier for them, to write him off and feel whatever it is that keeps a wall between them and him. I am pretty much the way I am with him that I am with you, that I am with my family, that I am with my partner. That is just who I am. That alone is complicated for people.
IG: If you do a movie that is complicated, you can’t expect simple responses. You’re setting up the framework for a wide range of reactions, and that is great. It generates a much more interesting conversation.
DR: We always get asked why my story is in the film. Some people think it worked really well and it had to be in there. Other people say that it should be cut out. Those diverse opinions start a conversation, and that’s definitely a conversation I wanted our film to have: To question on a deeper level what the role of the documenter in this world is. In the age of the selfie, who documents who? Why are we documenting? I think it is going to be bigger than ever because everyone is doing it. To me it is a really important thing.
For example, Jeff Malmberg, who made a beautiful film called Marwencol, is not really in the film. When we asked him, “Do you want to watch our film?” he saw our trailer and said, “Forget it, I want nothing to do with your film.” We talked and had this deep conversation and he came around to understanding our point of view. His perspective, which I understand, is that if the filmmaker isn’t in it then the audience becomes the camera. I think that that’s okay, but I think that’s just not true. There is always a director, it is shaped, the work is manipulated, and basically a million decisions are made.
JM: The way you shoot, edit, and present a movie is based on very personal and subjective decisions. Each person could make a different film with the same footage. It is a little bit naive to pretend that that doesn’t exist and you’re seeing the real life.
IG: It is also interesting that, in the same way Peter’s life relates to your life, his life can be understood as a commentary on larger aspects of society such as aging, mental illness, and poverty. Was this something that you set to do from the beginning?
DR: Our film has a lot of things going on, but I feel that it has a straightforward plot. There is this idea that the plot is the hook that you hang the meat on, and there is a lot of meat you can hang. To me, there are a couple of questions that stick over the film, one being that this guy is going to die if he stays in this house. From the moment you watch it, you think, “Something has got to happen here. I don’t know what it’s going to be and I’m horrified because it might not be good and it probably isn’t going to be good.” There are also all the complicated aspects related to the art show and Peter’s life. To me there’s a strong plot in our film. The meat comes through just following a story. I feel like if you follow any one story, all the issues, “social issues,” will come up. There are social issues around all of us if we look close enough. The character is the motor upon which those come through.
We were invited to present our film at South Korea’s EBS Documentary Festival this year, and we asked them why they had extended the invitation as we didn’t apply to exhibit the film. They though it was a great film to start a conversation with their elder population. There is a senior tsunami there and, more than any culture, theirs is very much beholden to elders. Our film showed a person similar to many people in Korea that, while maybe they aren’t as extreme as Peter, they are in a similar position, refusing to leave their home saying they would die if they leave their home. However, when they leave their home, they end up having a new lease on life. Many people have approached us and said, “This film is about aging in America.” We have screenings planned with elder care organizations and art therapists as well are very interested in the film.
IG: It goes back to the idea that the movie is complex and it is not trying to remove any of these layers. It gives the viewers the opportunity to have these conversations and these different readings that people can extrapolate to their own life, to their own conditions.
DR: I always feel like life is a mirror. If you share a lot, people will share back. By opening yourself up, people open up to you. I also think that only through the deeply idiosyncratic could you ever hope to be universal. That is something I have to teach my students because they often try to write vague proclamations. They think that vague clichés are the way in, that those are the universal things, but only by getting incredibly specific can you actually get other people to relate. You think that people wouldn’t understand something if it is too specific to them, but I think they do. That is what allows people to see their own self or story in something.
Dan Rybicky is an award-winning artist and teacher whose photographs, installations, and plays have been seen in venues in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. After receiving his BA at Vassar College and his MFA at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Dan began working with and consulting in various production capacities for filmmakers Martin Scorsese, John Sayles, and John Leguizamo. Dan recently directed the feature documentary Almost There, which screened at over thirty film festivals in 2015 before being distributed theatrically and digitally throughout the world. Dan is currently an Associate Professor in Cinema Art + Science at Columbia College Chicago where he designs and teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses.
@danrybicky | @almostthereproj
Iker Gil is an architect, urban designer, and director of MAS Studio. In addition, he is the editor in chief of MAS Context. He is the editor of the book Shanghai Transforming (ACTAR, 2008) and has curated several exhibitions, most recently “BOLD: Alternative Scenarios for Chicago” as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. He is the recipient of the 2010 Emerging Visions Award from the Chicago Architectural Club and has been recognized as one of “Fifty Under Fifty: Innovators of the 21st Century” by a jury composed by Stanley Tigerman, Jeanne Gang, Qingyun Ma, and Marion Weiss.
www.mas-studio.com | @MASContext
Julie Michiels is a contributing editor to MAS Context as well as an architect and senior project designer with Perkins+Will. With a focus on shaping how people experience interior spaces, she has worked on projects that range in location, scale, and program, from pre-K, to international transit hubs, workplace, and residential.