Art and Craft

PBS Premiere: Sept. 25, 2015Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

Filmmakers Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker discusses the making of the film, Art and Craft.

POV: Tell us what Art and Craft is about.

Sam Cullman: Art and Craft is a film about this guy, Mark Landis who is remarkable for many reasons, the biggest of which is he's an art forger who gave his forgeries away. He traveled around the country for about 30 years donating works of art from you know an unusual range, from 15th Century icons all the way to Picasso and even Walt Disney cells, donating these pieces of artwork to museums and institutions and often in memory of his parents. We caught up with Mark at this moment in his life when he had been exposed. And so the film takes place at this moment in time where he's confronting his legacy and the consequences of his actions.

POV: How did you find this story and Mark?

Jennifer Grausman: So I read an article in the New York Times in January of 2011 and you know it was as Sam mentioned, this very unusual art forger who had not benefited monetarily from his 30-year spree. And I couldn't stop thinking about it. You know a week later I was still thinking about it, so I showed the article to Sam and to Mark and they were both intrigued as well. So I figured you know Mark Landis wasn't interviewed in the article and I thought we wouldn't be able to find him necessarily.

So we started by calling Matthew Leininger, the registrar who had sort of discovered Mark Landis as a forger.

So once we found Mark Landis in Mississippi, we knew you know, this was an extraordinary character and even though we didn't know where the story was going to take us quite yet, we you know started filming and figured out we'd see where it would take us.

Sam Cullman: You know even that first day, it was clear that this guy was, was you know immediately engaging and immediately you know worth our while to sort of unpack what he was about, you know. And it shifted over time because you know I remember that first day, we were really influenced by this idea that he's crazy, he's this, he's that. You know he's a bad guy. And so we just like had all this expectation and nervous energy and Mark probably was nervous too. I remember him looking, staring at us in this sort of sense of confrontation with the camera. And already it just felt like there was a lot to see there.

POV: There's definitely a dry humor that is throughout the film and, Mark, maybe you can talk about the tone of the film and the use of music to enhance that.

Mark Becker: When you're approaching documentary material, one way to look at it is to take your preconceived notions and try to figure out how to make that work. And another way, which all of us prefer, is to respond to what's in front of you in kind of an improvisational way.

Mark, when he first got in the Cadillac, his red Cadillac, with Sam and Jen, what comes on the radio is these old Big Band songs from the '30s and '40s. And it was an initial inspiration for the music that animates the film. But a subsequent aspect of that was the film noirs that he watches on Turner Classic Movies and all these other films that actually are the world of Mark Landis. This is where he lives, he lives inside these films, while he's copying pictures. And so those were a subsequent inspiration for the music and a way to be honest towards the guy that Mark is.

POV: There's a link between the characters in films and the fictional personas that he creates for himself when he's peddling or philanthropically giving away his work. Can you talk about what he does when he goes out?

Jennifer Grausman: It's sort of an extended process. He does do a lot of research about what institutions he's giving the works away to. So you know in the past, and towards the end of his you know career as a forger and philanthropist, he really was about it for the trip and the human interaction. And so when he would go to a city or a town, he would want to hit every museum in the area. And so he would research and if it was a baseball museum he would make baseball cards. And if it was you know American history museum, he'd have memorabilia of other sorts. And paintings that he thought the curators and directors would actually want for their collection. In terms of getting into character I'd say you sort of see it in the film, his voice is completely different on the phone when he's talking to the people he's going to donate to than it is when he's talking to us. It's fascinating to see that. So I think he does get into character in some way and also I think he gets nervous and he sort of just wants to get in and out without anyone getting mad at him. And so once he does that he feels great.

POV: So somewhere along the way Mark "messes with the wrong registrar." Tell us a bit about Matthew Leininger and what his role in the film is.

Jennifer Grausman: You know Matt is a surprising and interesting character for a film like this because, we didn't quite realize it in full as we were making the movie, but we had the suspicion that there was interesting parallels between Matt's story and, and way of being and Mark's. You know it's not often that the protagonist and the antagonist and who is who get to sort of have an interaction in a film and then all of a sudden at the same time, sort of reflect each other in a way that sort of feels almost literary. Because of the way that the story had initially been framed, the film sort of sets up this idea that Matt is the good guy and Mark is the bad guy at the very beginning of the film, because that's how, that's how we understood it in the media. And that's how we were introduced to the story. And I think over time, I don't think the roles necessarily shift but they're, you see the sort of complexity and gray within that dynamic and that polar opposite just sort of gets shattered and we start to see them more as maybe like the flip sides of the same coin.

POV: Talk a little bit about the human aspect, the deeper human aspect. Can you paint a fuller portrait of Mark and his family and what you think drives this obsession that he has of recreating artworks.

Jennifer Grausman: You know Mark was an only child and he grew up, his dad was in the navy and stationed overseas. So they were constantly traveling in Europe. And his parents were both art lovers. And so you know Mark talks about how his father would take him to galleries during the day while his mother shopped and then they would come home with the catalogs from the museums and his parents would go out at night. And there wasn't TV in hotels at that point and so Mark didn't have anything to do so he would look through the catalogs and he started copying from them. You know his father passed away from cancer when he was 17 and that was sort of the, what seems to be the inciting episode in his breakdown. And he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and then went to the Menninger Clinic for a year. But he was very certain that he didn't, you know, he talks about not wanting to be a mental patient all his life and he made a concerted effort to leave the Menninger Foundation. And why he wanted to go to college. And so noticing his proclivity for copying, they thought he might want to be a commercial illustrator or something, they suggested art school. So he went to the Art Institute of Chicago, where actually instead of studying painting and drawing, he studied photography, cause he figured he could paint and draw already, might as well learn something. So he learned all of these processes for developing photographs and then realized he didn't have anything he wanted to take a picture of, which you know when he said that, we were like, oh this makes perfect sense.

Sam Cullman: One thing to just add to this I think is that Mark, because he was this military brat and he was like a child of parents who traveled because his father was in the navy, he saw the world. And he saw art of the world. And he also I think probably somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind realized that a lot of the mechanisms of art were tied up in patronage and maybe that also is laid the seeds of the inspiration for him to sort of make the shift from being comforted by the forgery of art or the faking and the copying of art to then sort of being inspired to be a philanthropist.

POV: From a filmmaking perspective are there any ethical dilemmas that you faced during the process where you felt, and I know that Mark was a willing and active participant in the film, but were there any considerations that made you feel uncomfortable, that you were struggling with from an ethical standpoint during the making of the film?

Sam Cullman: Mark really did want to tell his story. So much so that he was aware of how the story was being told constantly. This is a guy who watches movies constantly and understands the ways that movies and films and stories get told, in such a way that he was careful about his representation, as many subjects one encounters as a filmmaker is. Perhaps Mark was actually more heightened than most though.

You know he was careful about his participation and what sort of information he wanted to reveal when and under what context. So while we were constantly in the back of our minds worried about crossing a line into exploitation or crossing a line into like voyeurism and all that stuff, really actually in the day to day making of this film, it wasn't actually a concern.

POV: It's kind of astounding. It seems comical the ways in which he can fake the authenticity of a work of art. Obviously it takes a lot of skill to recreate the work itself, but how simple, on a certain level all the materials he needs are at hand.

Sam Cullman: For Mark, as we've discussed really what he was after was giving the work away in that moment. Maybe if it stayed in an institution, all the better. But really he wanted to make sure that it was authentic-looking enough for that moment. And so this freed him up to not care about the source of his material. You know getting paper from the 18th Century or getting the right pigments from the 15th Century or whatever it was. You know Mark bought his materials at Hobby Lobby. You know he went to Walmart to cut his wood, or Loews or Home Depot, whatever it was. Mark is many things, but what he would say first and foremost and, about himself is that he's lazy and he wants to get things done.

POV: It seems like anyone who actually took the time to do their "due diligence" could easily poke a hole in the fact that these are forgeries. But for the most part they don't, and one of the curators speaks to Mark in the context of the art world. That Mark lands in this "soft spot" between art and money. Can you talk about what that means, and Mark in the art world?

Jennifer Grausman: Mark visited a lot of institutions, some were larger, more established and some were smaller, say university museums that don't really have any funding and depend on donations. If Mark had been selling these works or selling them to give money to the museum or whatever it was, there would have been a lot more scrutiny.

POV: If Mark were to accept $1 in exchange for a work that he donated, would that then make him a criminal in terms of fraud?

Sam Cullman: He did perpetrate a criminal act, but he perpetrated an unprosecutable act, sort of that's the difference because there was no money exchanged and actually you know he didn't even take a tax write-off. It didn't rise to the level where a federal prosecutor or a criminal prosecutor would go after him.

POV: I know there was an article written about Mark that's already out there. Your film is potentially going to be seen by a million plus people in the United States. Mark's work, this is something that sustains him, so do you have thoughts about the exposure of this film and the impact that it will have on Mark and the work that sustains him?

Sam Cullman: I mean I think the question of exposure was something that we were dealing with in the film itself. As we were telling the story we saw Mark become exposed and you see him process the potential consequences of that exposure where he may not be able to go into a museum anymore and if you have a museum professional you're pretty happy about that but if you're Mark Landis, this is something that has given your life meaning. And so as people who are interested in Mark's well-being, we were concerned that our film itself would only amp the exposure and drive Mark back into isolation essentially because he could not go out and perpetrate this act. We have been surprised really by actually what has come of this. It started with the articles and it has now continued on with our film and it will only continue when we're so lucky to be on POV and have an even wider audience exposed to the film. What has happened actually is that people have seen the film or heard about his story and they want to get to know Mark and this is after all what Mark wanted all along. He wanted these human connections and he wanted to sort of know that his life had purpose and had meaning as we all do and it's now really not about you know this thirty year con and he's not going to museums as far as we know anymore because he is fulfilled in other ways.

POV: It sounds like he's embraced the film. Was that always the case? The first time he saw it, how did he react to his portrayal?

Mark Becker: At one point Sam Jen and I were talking with Mark at a lunch and I think we were fretting a little bit about what was going to happen with the film and would people end up seeing it and he said, "don't worry I really think it's going to be a cult classic".

Sam Cullman: The first time Mark saw the film was actually at our film festival premiere here in New York. And it was a shocker. We had tried to get him to see the film over and over and over again. He just constantly dodged that and pretty much was going to dodge it in New York too except our composer Stephen Ulrich saw him in the bathroom right before the film was about to happen and somehow convinced him to come in and watch the movie. Basically Mark was going to hide out there or just sort of quietly slip away and he saw it and to our pride and excitement he really did connect with the movie. I sat right behind him and just bit my nails through it all but he really connected with the film, gave Mark Becker kudos for his great work on the edit machine, that was his first line. And sort of funnily this speaks you know his movie knowledge, he also was excited to see what was going to happen in the movie he said to us. He was you know caught up in the movie of it and similarly, Matt Leininger saw the film that night as well and we initially sat them on different sides of the theater but that was completely foolish because they both got a kick out of it and responded to it and enjoyed seeing each other after the show.

POV: Jennifer touched a little bit on the idea of original art and what that means. In the beginning of the film, there's a quote from Mark in which he says, "Nothing is original under the sun." Can you talk about that and how your perspective on art may have changed or evolved while making the film?

Sam Cullman: I think what was so great about Mark as a character actually was that or as a subject in the film is that you know the folks in the movie sort of talk about Mark having perpetrated an art prank to sort of raise the notions or raise the idea of you know whether he was trying to make a commentary about the art world for all these questions of authenticity and also how we determine value and things of this nature, but what makes Mark so wonderful is actually this was not what he was after. He's somebody who sort of backed into these arguments and backed into these questions, which is wonderful because it allows audiences and folks to engage without judgment.

Mark Becker: There's nothing original under the sun. I don't know. When I heard him say that I thought that it might speak to his work as a copy artist and it might also speak to issues of identity and I think that's what plays out over the course of the film is learning who a person is and what a person grabs from here and there in order to form who they are. It's this open question in the film and I suppose there's no real answer in the art world or for identity but that's what we wanted to have the viewer experience just like we did.

Sam Cullman: These ideas were you know have been around for a long time and I think they're interesting, infinitely interesting. One thing that I have not finished wrestling with is this idea of intentionality. Mark was not trying to perpetrate this art prank, and yet he was provoking these questions and so can we see what Mark did as an art, you know as an art piece, as a work of art. And that I'm not quite sure of, you know does intentionally matter?