Interview: renowned artist and illustrator, Paul Davis, talks about his “Napoleon” poster, especially commissioned for the U.S. premiere of Abel Gance’s reconstructed silent film masterpiece
Abel Gance’s riveting silent film, “Napoleon,” presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), has taken the Bay Area by storm—and there are just two remaining opportunities to catch the reconstructed classic: this Saturday and Sunday at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre. Equally amazing is the film’s poster, essentially a huge portrait of Napoleon, evoking the tri-colored French flag, created especially for the event by legendary artist and illustrator Paul Davis. Even if you’re not familiar with Paul Davis, you’re likely familiar with Paul Davis’ work, especially if you went to any Broadway or off-Broadway shows in the 1970’s or 80’s, where you would have seen his posters, or if you read magazines like Time, Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, Esquire, etc., where he’s done both illustrations and covers. When the prestigious Centre Georges Pompidou opened in Paris in 1977, Davis was the first American artist to show his work there—his solo show was part of the museum’s opening festivities. His artwork is also included in MOMA’s poster collection. His career spans 50 plus years and his creative voice has helped define that world where art, illustration, design and typography all spill brilliantly into each other.
His Napoleon poster, too, is sure to become a classic: on the top is an evocative portrait of a young Napoleon, the man who would defend a nation during its greatest Revolution. Executed in rich hues of blue, with strands of seafoam hair framing his pensive face, the young leader stares imperiously—right at you and right through you. On the bottom, in red, there’s a subtle use of an epic battle scene from Napoleon’s Italian campaign which closes the film. Blazoned across the center in a gorgeous typeface called Eagle is “Napoleon” set off by a white backdrop. Full size posters and window placards are all around the Bay Area and, last weekend, a few were brought to Sonoma County.
Bruce Goldstein, of New York’s Film Forum, on the advisory board for SFSFF and handling the national publicity for the Napoleon event, suggested Davis for the poster. “All Paul’s posters have a real psyche,” said Goldstein, who first worked with Davis in the late 1990’s, when his company, Rialto Pictures, commissioned him to do the poster for the special re-release of Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), one of the greatest movies of all time. “We needed something special, not a run of the mill poster, and Paul Davis, was the illustrator who came to mind who was worthy of Grand Illusion. And he delivered! I might also add that his image for Grand Illusionbecame the very first image used as a DVD cover by the Criterion Collection, which was quite an honor for Criterion.”
“Most movie posters today, even those for so-called art house films, are filled with clichés—it’s just ridiculous,” said Goldstein. “We didn’t want the Napoleon poster to be an advertisement but rather an enduring work of art in the tradition of the great poster designers of the 19th century, like Toulouse-Lautrec. You’ll see textual information, which had to be there, but you won’t see any critical quotes on this poster.”
“A poster makes an incredible impression and it’s really a very important factor in the decision to go and see a film,” said Anita Monga, Artistic Director, San Francisco Silent Film Festival, “This is an artwork that makes you want to see the film and that you’ll want to have afterwards to commemorate the screening. It’s all we’re using.”
I couldn’t wait to speak with Davis about his poster and I caught up with him at last Friday’s dress rehearsal for Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre.
How did you approach a poster design project like this?
Paul Davis: I first saw the film in 1981, when it was at Radio City Music Hall with a live orchestra and it was quite dramatic. I remember that feeling of being swept up in it, the emotions, but not so many of the details. I managed to download the whole thing from the internet on my computer and I really looked at it and that’s where I got most of my reference material from too. I knew I was going to do a portrait of Napoleon right away. It was really hard to find that right image–I did a half a dozen portraits before I did this one. This was from a frame right out of the film itself.
The creative process also has a lot to do with intention. When I set out to do something like this, I go to the material and I go as deeply as I can go, finding out what moves me and working off of that. I started on this project last summer and I had several versions and that’s how it’s done. Sometimes there’s a great film and it really suffers from this lack of attention and that always mystifies me.
Why are so many movie posters today absolute turn-offs?
I ask myself that all the time. You can look at a movie poster and you say, ‘I know that genre; I don’t want to see the movie.’ But these designers so often miss the point of the movie—they’re so interested in making sure that you know the genre and in capturing a given audience that they are unwilling to experiment in capturing what’s actually moving about that film. As a result, a lot of posters are negative advertising.
For me, what works about the Napoleon image you’ve created is that he is both looking at us and right through us, as if he’s fixed on more important things, which seems so appropriate. We have a glimpse of his internal world and there’s an almost filmic saturation of the colors.
Paul Davis: I do try to capture as much of the character as I can. There is an emotional quality as well. He’s looking out into the world. He was such an unusual character, so very confident and such a leader. People don’t do what he did without tremendous courage, audacity, and arrogance.
In terms of a subject for a portrait, it’s hard to take your eyes off Albert Dieudonné−those penetrating eyes and his total embodiment of a complex and driven personality.
Paul Davis: Actually, they weren’t sure they were going to cast him; he really had to convince Gance, who thought he was too old. He dressed up in the uniform and went over to visit him―they were friends―and he got the part.
The portrait that is so familiar of Napoleon though, that is in everyone’s mind, is the one of Napoleon with his hands in his coat, with that kind of permanent scowl, which is so grim. I wanted to make the poster a likeness of Dieudonné, with an echo of what we all know about Napoleon−that fierce grin on his face. Actually, if you look closely at the poster, at the face, you’ll a great difference in the whites of his eyes too. If you look at people’s faces and divide them, there are two different people in everyone.
So the inspiration is a film still, but you had a real vision of what it should convey.
Paul Davis: Well, I took the frames I liked off the film, literally hundreds and hundreds of them, and then I loaded them all in iPhoto and I studied them. I was really looking for very subtle types of emotion and when I finally arrived at that, I printed those out and drew from a few of those. I actually made several finished portraits. I was trying to depict that moment when he internalizes that he is the revolution, with him gazing upwards and having the light come from behind his head. I was working and working with that but I couldn’t get it―it wasn’t convincing. The one that I chose was the last one that I made. I knew I had it because it did everything I wanted it to do.
Beyond the idea of a portrait, how did you approach designing this?
For the battle scene at the bottom, I started with a chaotic scene from the film but it was so blurry and it didn’t have everything I wanted, so I started inserting figures and objects into that, that you could read and identify.
Would you say you’re very influenced by and even dependent on photos?
Paul Davis: Of course, but when I do the theatre things, if I could get access, I’ve always tried to take my own photographs and to spend time close to the heart of the performance. I try to see the person separately so that I can have an idea of their character. For me, I felt that I need to get to know them. I attempted that here too, to capture Napoleon’s personality.
When do you add color? Also, how did you handle the division of space and how it all comes together?
Paul Davis: First, I compose the image and the color comes last. I painted the portrait blue and the battle scene red with Photoshop. I had the idea for the tricolor from the film itself because, at the end of the film, the screen is tricolor, pretty hard and intense―the left screen is blue; the middle is white; the right is red. The images are just sort of boiling over those colors and that’s the end of the film.
But before that, I basically have the two images in the computer and I set up the size of the poster and start playing with the scale so that I could make the battle scene wider or narrower or deeper or shallower. Then, I added the white in the center. I also had to add all that text at the bottom. At that point, it becomes more technical, just trying to fit everything in. I knew that I didn’t want any text above his face so I convinced everyone to put the title in the middle and everything else beneath that.
You’ve chosen a very simple typeface but the color makes it pop.
Paul Davis: That typeface is “Eagle” and it’s one of my favorites. I don’t pick them by name but there’s an eagle in the movie that keeps appearing, so this is the perfect typeface. It’s from the 1930’s and it’s very useful and you’d be surprised at how many places in the world that it appears. Once you start noticing those spiky m’s and n’s and the perfectly round o’s―it’s really gorgeous. Napoleon has this wonderful “o” in it and “n’s” on both ends and it’s such a great word that really works with that font.
What was the feeling you wanted to evoke though the typeface?
Paul Davis: I wasn’t trying for nostalgia at all, maybe the opposite. I tried another typeface of Cassandre’s (pseudonym of the legendary French artist Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron) called “Bifur.” Cassandre was a great poster designer who did all those great 1920’s posters we know of steamships and so forth. Bifur is an experimental font from that era which I always wanted to use but haven’t yet. It just didn’t work for the poster, so I used Eagle instead, which is from also that era and from that same period in which Gance was working, that very modern age. The colorization was handled through Photoshop.
Sounds like you reply on your iPhone, Photoshop and the new design tools.
Paul Davis: Photoshop, an Apple computer, iPhone and quite a lot of software—it’s all standard for artists now. The only thing that is a little unusual about the work that I do is that I also do a lot of illustration and I also do design. The illustrators all want to know if I had to learn about type and the type designers all want to know if they have to learn about drawing. My attitude is why wouldn’t they want to know−it’s like consciously choosing to remain crippled.
Your website has a fabulous gallery of work. I recognize several of these images. Which are your favorites?
Paul Davis: The early theatre posters I did for Joe Papp―The Three Penny Opera and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Those were the first real theatre posters I did. That was over 30 years ago. I did most of these within a year or two of each other and I was exploring new ground and I was very receptive to trying many different things for new effects. To kind of begin a career with an opportunity like this was really good because it gave me the chance to do the type of work that I wanted to do.
How many movie posters have you done and how are they different from your theatre posters?
Paul Davis: There are different contractual agreements. In terms of film posters, I’ve done: Small Circle of Friends (Rob Cohen, 1980, starring Brad Davis, Karen Allen and Jameson Parker), Secret Friends (Dennis Potter, 1992, starring Alan Bates), Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937, starring Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Eric von Stroheim) and Napoleon. I’ve done quite a lot of sketches for movie posters that were rejected and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to do them. We’re doing another Grand Illusion poster for the 75th anniversary. They are doing a digital version of the original print, so I’m doing that too.
What makes a movie poster work for you?
Paul Davis: I really love the posters from the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s. They had very exciting graphics but they weren’t taken very seriously in terms of being an art form. Some movies had as many as 1,000 printed pieces that went with them to the exhibitor and, to capture different audiences, they would do two and three posters for some movies. They would also put little contests into the posters too to find out whether people were actually looking at them. They would print small things like, “Mention this when you come to the theatre and you’ll get a prize.” I was amazed at how intense some of these posters were and how creatively they were designed and how they made real statements. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, they used some of the very best artists in New York for these—like Al Hirshfeld. When it came to prizes, these artists never won any prizes for these things because I think they were considered kind a low form of art. That whole era, when they were churning them out and were so experimental, is very exciting for me.
What poster artists inspire you? I’ve read that you really appreciate Toulouse Lautrec.
Paul Davis: The best posterist at the time was Jules Cheret, known for his rainbow of color…an almost impressionistic splatter of color…but Lautrec, one of the very best artists, really breathed life into his art. And because he was wealthy, and could do what he wanted, he was such a great artist. Lautrec, Cheret and Cassandre—the high art they brought to the poster was unexcelled. So the poster, for me, really starts in France and then it goes to a lot of other places. I heard that Lautrec used to go and stay in the country with some friends of his and, every day at their house, he would write the menu for dinner and make a drawing and would do this in multiple. The woman who owned the house would throw them away afterwards. And apparently he never objected at all to her behavior. It just makes me sick to think of throwing out those drawings.
What are you working on right now?
Paul Davis: Two things. A promotion for a new project about Eleanor Roosevelt (a video) and I really want to do a portrait of Obama for the election. I had this idea four years ago but the Shepard Fairey inauguration poster just swamped everything and it was so good, very graphic, and you really remember it. I also thought I ought to do a poster of Mitt Romney too, just to be fair. Norman Rockwell did this. He did Nixon and John F. Kennedy and he did Eisenhower and Stevenson and he would do these portraits every 4 or 8 years, and he was so even handed. I really want to do this.
But it sounds like you’re not so interested in being even handed?
Paul Davis: No.
Do you have any personal connection to Napoleon?
Paul Davis: Well, I grew up in Oklahoma. In 1803; Napoleon sold that land, which included Oklahoma and 14 others states, in the Louisiana Purchase to Thomas Jefferson. If he hadn’t sold this, I might be French today. So that’s my connection.
If you could somehow go back in time to Napoleon’s era when he was the most important figure in world politics and the frequent subject of caricature, how might you have depicted him?
Paul Davis: I don’t know what I would have done. The fact is that they were sending English caricaturists to jail in France for what they did…but the satire back then was quite sophisticated. I recently saw an image at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in their exhibition, “Caricature and Satire From Leonardo to Levine” of a caricature done by the famous English artist, James Gillray, dated 1805, showing Napoleon and William Pitt, who was England’s Prime Minister, though they didn’t use that title at the time. The two of them are carving up the world―depicted as a big plum pudding with the Earth drawn on it. The thing that struck me as fascinating was that Gillray was criticizing the English military mandate in the same way that he was criticizing Napoleon. You saw Napoleon slicing off Europe and the
English guy slicing off another side, like the Americas. Napoleon was trying to unite Europe and started out with a very noble cause, wanting to bring about real change. In the beginning, the French Revolution was supposed to bring liberty, equality and fraternity and it did remove a lot of obstacles to progress but it brought along a lot of horrible things as awful people came to power. Napoleon came in at the end of that and he was lucky that he didn’t get caught up in it, or killed. He seemed set to really change things but he became a total nepotist and had members of his direct family made kings (of Belgium, Italy and Spain) and that flew in the face of everything the revolution had fought for. I’m sure I would have found a way to comment on that, but it was also dangerous.
Paul Davis’ Artwork appearing in film and television: Paul Davis’ artwork has appeared in many movies and TV shows. When Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason share an apartment in The Goodbye Girl, it is decorated with Davis’s poster for the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Henry V. Davis’s poster of Che Guevara appears both in Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! and Rob Cohen‘s A Small Circle of Friends. In the film adaptation of John Guare‘s Six Degrees of Separation, Davis’s mural for New York City’s Arcadia restaurant is featured. Paul’s iconic poster for the Public Theater production of Three Penny Opera is on the wall of Jonathan Eliot’s apartment in the NBC sitcom The Single Guy. In the 2009 film Precious, Paul’s poster for the 1975 production of Ntozake Shange‘s For Colored Girls adorns the teacher’s apartment.
Click here to purchase a limited edition Napoleon poster by Paul Davis. (27” x 40” $30.00 and 11” x 17’ $15.00) Posters will also be available at all four screenings.
More about Paul Davis: There’s a very good article by Steven Heller about Paul Davis (click here to read) at AIGA, the American Institute of Graphic Arts.
Paul Davis’ Napoleon poster was printed by Jeff Baltimore of XL Graphics, Inc., in NY.
Napoleon Event Details:
What: Silent film historian Kevin Brownlow’s 2000 reconstruction, the most complete possible restoration of 1927 5 ½ hour film in the original 20 frames per second, with the finale in polyvision, requiring 3 screens. The Oakland East Bay Symphony will be conducted by the eminent British composer, Carl Davis, whose score will be the live accompaniment to the film. This is the U.S. premiere for both the reconstruction and the music.
2 remaining performances: Saturday, March 31, 2012, and Sunday, April 1, 2012
Where: Paramount Theatre, Oakland
Time: All four performances begin at 1:30pm. There will be three intermissions: two 20-minute intermissions and a 1 hour, 45 minute dinner break starting at 5:00pm. View Places to Eat for nearby restaurant recommendations and make reservations in advance.
The film itself is 5½ hours long; with intermissions included, the show will let out at approximately 9:45pm.
Tickets: Buy tickets for all Napoleon performances here.
More Information: San Francisco Silent Film Festival
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