By Gregory Crofton
Buffalo is known for cold-weather football, lake-effect snow, chicken wings and now, at least in my mind, an artist named Spain Rodriguez.
Rodriguez grew up in Buffalo, New York. His name at birth was Manuel, but he renamed himself Spain, a telling move that conveys a bit of the “bad attitude” that came to him naturally. Rodriguez did things his own way. And quite often they had never been done before, at least in the world of underground comics.
“Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez” screened earlier this year at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and then recently at the Mill Valley Film Festival, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
It “rolls like a locomotive,” says director Susan Stern, who is currently considering distribution options for her doc.
And she’s right, it does roll. It’s tightly constructed, clocking in at 71 minutes – perfectly packed with great artwork and cool music. It hurls you into the origins of underground comics of the late 1960s while also telling a tale of motorcycle gangs, young love, feminism and, of course, the very interesting life of Spain Rodriguez.
We had a chance to catch up with Stern by phone to talk about her film and Spain, a man she lived with for 33 years.
What’s the significance of your title: “BAD ATITUDE: The Art of Spain Rodriguez”
We had such a hard time figuring out a title. That one came from actually a sound bite that Spain said. He says that he always had a bad attitude ever since he was a child. And he actually says that he didn’t like rich people, which is actually kind of a radical thought to say that. Because I feel like we live in a culture that reveres rich people.
We just felt that “Bad Attitude” really summed him up. For a long time the film was called “The Provocations of Spain Rodriguez.” He was a provocateur, but a lot of people told me that the word provocateur, provocations, was too complicated for a lot of people, and I think “Bad Attitude” has a better ring to it anyway. He just had a bad attitude.”
To really elevate a documentary, it takes a good soundtrack and yours does that, can you tell me about that?
So glad you appreciated the soundtrack. That was a lot of work. My previous two films I always hired a composer because I couldn’t afford to … licensed music was unattainable. This time most of the music is from the Oakland California composer B. Quincy Griffin, who I thought did a beautiful job. He and I agreed that we just had to license some songs that were really resonant of the period. Spain was really into music. And Spain was quite a collector of R&B and Doo-wop and had an extensive collection of 45s, so it really felt like I had to have good music and music of the period.
Sexism and feminism are important topics in the film. I know with underground comics sexism would probably be an issue that comes up. You can’t avoid it, but you handled it so thoroughly but at the same time seemed very fairly, so the conclusion seems that it would be humanity has a dark side and that Spain was respectful to women in his life? Is that a fair assessment?
Yeah, I think so. Of course, one of the bizarre things I did, while making the film, since I’m a journalist … I was a newspaper reporter for a very long time, and an investigative reporter … so I decided I had to read every issue of Zap Comix … and then I made a detailed color-coded inventory of every act of sexual violence in Zap Comix and counted them. I think I did every act of violence, and color-coded whether it was against men or against women, and it was actually about even for men and women except for the violence against women was sexualized.
But on the other hand, after doing all of that, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t making a film about all of underground comics or all of Zap comix, and I wasn’t going to tackle that. I was just going to look at Spain’s work. And Spain’s work didn’t have that sexual violence in it, I don’t believe. He definitely had naked and scantily clad women, and he definitely had violence and has some battle scenes involving scantily clad women. Some people find that in itself sexually violent, but I didn’t. It wasn’t rape or abuse, he didn’t do those sorts of things.
And I realize by saying this — I’m challenging everyone that knows otherwise to come out of the woodwork — but I tried to investigate it. As far as I know, he was never accused of any sexual impropriety against women or girls and in fact he was beloved as a teacher and a mentor by many women and girl artists. He taught many kids at the Mission Cultural Center and so there are other grown women now, girls and boys, who were his students.
The scenes with Spain and his daughter are together so great. To have her animation included is so cool.
He was very protective as a father, he was even overprotective as a father.
How long did you work on this film, and how difficult was it to get it made especially given all the artwork in it?
I worked on it for eight years, and at the same time my assistant and I organized all of Spain’s art, protected all of the art, and made a database of the art and an inventory. I’m very proud of the way we ended up handling the art and that is all due to Nol Honig, who was the designer of the film. I searched and searched. I knew I needed someone to figure out how to handle the art. There were so many issues with it, not the least of which is the fact that comic books are a vertical medium and film is a horizontal medium, that was very challenging.
And then of course there was amazing labor that we all had to put in. Once we figured out what to use, we had to scan a lot of stuff to begin to edit with it. And then we had to go back and rescan everything in 4K definition, which I’m really glad we did because it looks good on the big screen. Nol was the one who both did the title animation and then he did the design of the whole film. I was just lucky to find him. I just cruised and cruised the Internet. When I finally go to Nol, who, his website is amazing (thedrawingroom.com), turns out he’s a fan of comics of course, and he’s a fan of the underground and he even knows DC cartoonists, so it was like a match made in heaven.
It really seems like a big-sized budget film, the way it’s made and how polished it is. Is that the case? Were you able to get investors?
It was an expensive film. It cost several hundred thousand dollars to make. I also paid people. I believe in paying people, no interns were used in the making of this film and I was lucky to be able to do that. I was really just lucky through the funds of friends and family and that’s just a great privilege that I had. Because I tried to get funding for the film from the very beginning and was turned down.
It’s fantastic looking and that was a big part, because I didn’t know who Spain was. I didn’t have a lot of interest in necessarily watching the film. I’m not a huge fan of comics and all of that was very important to keep me in the story.
Thank you. I appreciate you watching … but I feel like the film is about so much not just about comics, which are a uniquely American art form, it’s not just about comics as part of the history of art, but it’s about a family of artists and that’s interesting to me.
Yeah, it’s an incredible American story. Obviously R. Crumb, the “Crumb” documentary is what got me into documentaries. My brother and I watched it 25 years ago or whatever. And to see him on the screen I just lit up. And he’s always such a great interview. Was that difficult to get him involved in the film and when was that interview shot?
It was not difficult because Robert and Spain were really best friends and I’m good friends with Robert and Aline Crumb. We’ve been friends over the years. That was probably shot when I first started working on the film, which was before Spain died, so that would have been shot in 2012. The funny behind-the-scenes about that is that it was shot in Terry Zwigoff’s house. Terry Zwigoff is a friend of mine, was a friend of Spain’s and mine, and of course a really close friend of Crumb, and he lives around the corner from us in Bernal Heights in San Francisco. So Crumb was in town and I wanted to take the opportunity to interview him and I asked Terry if we could do it in his house and Terry said ‘Yes.’
I did the interview with Aline in France where Robert and Aline now live, in the village that they live in, and that wasn‘t shot until January of 2018.
Spain and Robert Crumb were good friends, right?
They were very close friends. In some ways Spain was the heart of ZAP Comics … Spain was the closest friend of a lot of people.
To me this is how good your documentary is, because I had seen so many images of cartoons, and because I know both of these men now, I started visualizing that scene as a cartoon as I was watching it because he was eating the food and he was conveying such immense information and to see Crumb live ingesting it, reacting to it, it really was something.
You were right that should be a comic strip it was so funny with Robert eating the corned beef sandwich. It was poorly shot. I shot it. It wasn’t planned. Robert just stopped by the house. So I picked up a camera and set up a light and I’m not a cinematographer so I was like ‘Oh my god.’
Well, you got it. Nice work!
I got it, exactly.
You did interview Spain’s past girlfriends. You were with him for 33 years, was this awkward to interview his girlfriends?
No. Spain stayed friends with all of his girlfriends, so they became our friends … that’s the other thing that sort of a test to him being a good guy, all the other girlfriends remained friends with him.
The documentary really flows. I thought at one point this would be a lot of story to plan out and tell. But I guess it was best to go with the chronology of his life? Is that sort of what you did?
Well we tried, and as a writer you’ll appreciate this. Of course, I wanted to be more modern, and there were a lot of times that I thought we should start with New York and the New York underground comics scene and flash back to his life in Buffalo. We tried that, we tried it many times, but we couldn’t get it to work because … there ended up being essential information that you had to know about him, and to know about comics, to make underground comics make any sense, you had to know about DC Comics. You even had to know about the comics out of World War II. You had to know about him as a juvenile delinquent and his run-ins with police, you had to know that he had a Spanish background, so we couldn’t ever get it to work in any other way than chronologically.
The final run time is about 65 minutes, right?
It’s 71. I have always made really tight films. I have two previous films (Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour, The Self-Made Man). They both came in under an hour, basically 56 minutes, not because I attempted to do that. They were both on POV, so they both had to be cut to 53 minutes, just because I get bored easily. I feel like “Bad Attitude” rolls like a locomotive. That’s how I think a film should be. I don’t have a lot of patience for films that move slowly, it’s just my taste.
So I wanted to get over 70 minutes, in my mind 70 minutes is what is considered featured length, so I wanted it to be feature length. But I think there is a lot more I could put I, but I don’t like slow films. I am seeking a good distribution deal. I have been offered one and been approached by some sale agents. It feels like there are so many documentaries, there are also a lot of good documentaries, that the market is really full. It’s hard to get any kind of deal even to break even because they want you to cover so many up-front costs. And then they want to take their expenses off the top, so even to break even feels difficult.
Do you think Spain would like that a film was made about him and his work?
I think Spain would be happy with the film. I had made a short about him &
his art in 2012 right before he died, and he loved it.