Derek Blasberg is a writer, editor, and New York Times best-selling author. In addition to being the executive editor of Gagosian Quarterly, he is the head of fashion and beauty for YouTube. He has been with Gagosian since 2014.
Alex Israel was born in Los Angeles, where he continues to live and work. Israel has recently been the subject of solo shows at the Jewish Museum, New York, and the Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo.
Derek BlasbergI guess the question to start with is, Why did you want to make a movie in the first place?
Alex Israel I wanted to make an artwork for teenagers with a positive message about creativity. It needed to be something that they could access, and a movie can live and circulate online.
DBInteresting. So you want this to live in a digital-only platform? Would you call this a work of video art?
AIFirst I’m going to premiere it for teenagers in schools, I’ll go on tour to present it to them. In addition to the screenings, at each stop along the tour I’ll invite students to join me in a conversation about art and creativity. Ultimately I want it to be available to as many teens as possible, so it needs to live online and stream on demand. It’ll be available on iTunes and shortly thereafter on Netflix, to whom I’ve licensed it. It’s both a movie and an artwork.
DBI know you grew up in California. Was cinema a part of your childhood?
AIMovies were always a big part of my life, especially between the ages of eleven and seventeen. I think the movies I watched during that six-year span were exceptionally impactful on my life and worldview.
DBQuick: what are the three best movies from that period that first come to mind? Go!
AIRisky Business, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Home Alone.
DBAnd how did growing up near the movie industry affect you?
AIGrowing up, I felt close to Hollywood—I could recognize filming locations, and I might see movie stars at the park or at a Laker game. Even though my parents didn’t work in the entertainment industry, there were kids at school and friends in the neighborhood whose parents did, and that gave me insight into the way the whole system functioned. I was always fascinated.
DBDid you ever want to make a movie when you were young? Is this, even in a little way, fulfilling a childhood dream?
AIYes, absolutely. I constantly made movies with a camcorder as a kid.
DBLet’s talk specifically about SPF-18. Great title, by the way. How did the story come about?
AII was researching early surf films and I learned that many, including The Endless Summer, were originally shown in high school gymnasiums. I wondered whether that could be a viable way to distribute something today. I liked the idea of bringing a project directly to teens, to their high schools, so that’s what we’re doing with the tour. Surf movies were an influence, as were teen movies by John Hughes and Amy Heckerling and the TV shows that I grew up with, like Saved by the Bell, Beverly Hills, 90210, and to some extent the after-school special. I didn’t know how to write a screenplay so I began thinking about someone I might work with. I tracked down Michael Berk, who created the original Baywatch—my friend Molly Logan introduced us—and he agreed to work with me. I wanted the movie to be earnest, and I liked that in addition to being an LA beach story there was no irony in Baywatch. I won a grant for the project from the VIA Art Fund and the first thing I did with the money was hire Berk.
DBDo you think LA is having a cinematic renaissance? Or, with Grease, 10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless—movies just off the top of my head—has California always been its own muse?
AII think LA is definitely going through a growth spurt or some kind of renaissance. The city has always loved checking itself out in the mirror, sure, but at this moment the whole world seems to be checking it out too.
DBWhat did you think of La La Land?
AII loved it. I saw it three times.
DBTalk to me about your cast.
AII hired a casting director, a duo actually—Nicole Daniels and Courtney Bright. Together they’d cast The Bling Ring, which has an incredible cast of unknown teen actors, and that’s what I was hoping to find. We looked at hundreds of audition tapes and did live auditions and callbacks. For the role of Ash Baker we needed to find a young male actor who could act and sing and play guitar. When we cast the roles of Steve and Johnny we met with young actors and pro surfers and even a few actors who could surf. The adult roles were lower commitment—we could shoot each in a day or two—so we courted iconic actors like Pamela Anderson, Molly Ringwald, Rosanna Arquette, and Keanu Reeves, and each of them was open to taking part.
DBWere those big names important to you?
AIIt was an opportunity not only to bring high-level talent into the film but also to reference their bodies of work and their historic, symbolic significance as teen idols of the past. My producer, China Chow, was instrumental in securing name-brand talent for the movie.
DBTell me about Goldie Hawn. Did she live up to your expectations? If she didn’t, just lie to me and tell me she did.
AIGoldie Hawn is the movie’s narrator. We recorded her lines one morning at a studio in Venice Beach. She nailed it. I wanted the narrator’s voice to sound wise, comforting, fun, and regional— Californian. Goldie was perfect, and so generous to take part.
DBTell me about filming. Where did you do it and for how long?
AIWe filmed for nineteen days total, which meant we had to move fast. We shot primarily in Malibu. Half of the shoot took place at Harry Gesner’s architectural masterpiece the Wave House. We shot on the Malibu Pier, the Pacific Coast Highway, in Encinal Canyon for the driving scenes, at a surf shop called Mollusk, and at the Viper Room. Locations were extremely important to creating the feel of the movie. The whole process was unexpected —I had never done this before, so I jumped into the deep end and learned as we went. The process was extremely collaborative. Everyday I was working with the actors, the writer, the costume designer, the production designer, the cinematographer, and my producers. For many of us it was the first time at the rodeo—or at least our first feature-film project—so we learned together. There was lots of stress, a little kumbaya, and some great magical moments when everything somehow came together in the end.
DBHow was making a movie similar to and different from making your other artworks?
AIIt was similar in that most of what I do is collaborative—I work with fabricators to realize most of my works. It was different in ways that are hard to describe. There’s always a challenge to trying something new, moving from one body of work to the next, but making a movie was like stepping into a completely different realm. It’s almost the difference between making an object to put into the world and constructing a world into which you could imagine putting that object.
DBI know that you do other things, including sunglasses; now you’re doing a movie, and you collaborated with Bret Easton Ellis on a show at Gagosian last year. Do you think we’re reentering a world in which artists can do more than just one thing? Have you ever thought about your work in these terms?
AIUsually making one work or doing one project leads to the next. I try to work in a way that feels organic and connected to my experience. I’ve been surfing the web since middle school, and that’s certainly helped influence my desire to make different kinds of things. It’s allowed me to research sunglass manufacturing in China, to track down guests for my talk show, to take the step from selfies to self-portraiture, and to imagine making an artwork for teens that can live on Netflix.
DBI just mentioned Bret, so let’s talk a bit about that series of work. It was one of my favorites. How did that concept come to pass? How did you and Bret work together?
AII had been thinking about the text painting as a kind of LA-specific art-historical trope, and had wondered how I might explore the tradition. Not being a writer but having loved the process of working with one on the SPF-18 script, I reached out to Bret, a friend and hero, to ask if he’d be open to collaborating. He agreed and started writing brief texts, which we edited together over some funny boozy dinners at the mall, and I ultimately turned them into the stock-photo-based paintings that we showed in Beverly Hills and London.
DBLast week I was at a dinner party with a prominent collector who recently told me that she prefers architects to artists because the creation of their work requires communication with others, whereas art doesn’t. She joked that artists are too selfish.
AIArchitecture is a language that we all speak, at least on some level, whenever we enter a man-made structure. Art is a more rarefied and abstract language, so as a tool for communication it might seem at times limited or indecipherable. With SPF-18 I’m hoping to engage young people, to make them feel enfranchised by art and creativity, and ultimately, I hope, to convince some of them that art is a language worth exploring.
DBNo spoilers, but who do you want to collaborate with next? And please let it be Goldie Hawn again.
AII think I could probably learn a lot from a primate.
DBYou mean like Alf?
AIYou never know.
All photos by Rachel Chandler